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Guess What City Managed to Turn Free Wifi into An Issue of Class?

Hint: It's not Philadelphia, which is moving to provide wireless access to the Internet throughout more than 100 square miles of the city, free to every resident. Nor is it Alexandria, which has already set up free wireless along the King Street corridor.

No, it's the District of Columbia, which, while meaning well, now proposes to pit neighborhoods against one another by setting up a wireless Internet network that would be built in more affluent areas and in the poorest sections of town, but not necessarily in all poor areas and not necessarily in the mixed-income neighborhoods this mayor has been so eager to create.

As described in today's Post story by Arshad Mohammed, the District proposes not to build the system itself, but to grant a contract to whatever companies promises to serve the most low-income residents. The service provider would be allowed to choose which sections of the city to build in, as long as it committed to providing free service to a number of low-income residents. How exactly the city and its contractor would determine where to build, who has to pay and who gets the free service is not clear. What would happen in rapidly gentrifying parts of town where the well-to-do live side-by-side with struggling families? What would happen in neighborhoods that have had a strong mix of people across economic class lines for many years? And would any company provide service in areas that are largely poor, but not poor enough to make it onto the District's list of must-serve low-income areas?

Free Internet access is already up and running in Dupont Circle, Alexandria, and various smaller hot spots around the city and region, mainly near businesses that decided to extend their signals to satisfy customers who might be hanging around outside. Even the feds, at least in the form of the Smithsonian Institution, have come around to the idea.

Philly is moving ahead with its plan, paid for by bonds and private investment. But the city of brotherly love is only proceeding after the state government caved to the big phone and cable companies, which got the state's legislature to ban such government-sponsored initiatives everywhere in Pennsylvania except Philly.

As you might expect, some Asian countries are well ahead of us in providing free or nearly free access to the Internet as a way to spur innovation and push their societies toward broader adoption of new technology. But in this country, 14 states have passed laws restricting municipalities from setting up their own wireless networks, on the grounds that the cable and phone companies that crave this business must be protected.

The District wisely proposes to get around that issue by asking companies to bid on a contract to install the wireless network, rather than having the city build the system itself. It's also admirable that the District aims to accomplish this broadening of access without spending a dime of taxpayer money.

But the goal should be to provide some access to everyone at no cost. The company that takes on the project could then charge fees for what the Philadelphia initiative calls "tiered service levels" akin to the tiered packages in the cable TV industry.

Instead, the District has chosen a divisive proposal (which still must win approval from the D.C. Council). There's nothing wrong with public policies that soak the rich to ease the impact of income inequalities, and goodness knows the District is a world champion at that approach.

But the issue here is not a simple one of taxing the affluent for the benefit of the needy. Rather, the whole idea behind municipal wireless is to create a seamless cloud of web access that lets everyone take advantage of the new technologies, and that encourages businesses to locate not only in affluent areas, but anywhere in the city. If the ultimate goal is to repopulate the District and to do so with mixed communities, then creating easy broadband access for all, in every neighborhood, is the minimum the city government should demand.

By Marc Fisher |  March 9, 2006; 7:38 AM ET
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Free Wi-Fi...I've already got it. My neighbor's system is open and unsecured. It's free Wi-Fi.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 8, 2006 9:57 AM

Whether it's Wi-Fi or health insurance -- or the location of banks and grocery stores -- you can't blame the private sector for following the money. If you want to provide universal service, as we did with the telephone, you need to regulate it and pay for it, usually with a dedicated tax on users. The problem here is, if the users all use the service for free, who would you tax?

Posted by: Meridian | March 8, 2006 10:05 AM

Can the provider write the service off as a donation?

Posted by: John | March 8, 2006 10:20 AM

Is there any way for the city or the private company to tell what parts of the city would actually be able to access the wireless network? In some of the poorer sections of town, I can't imagine there being a glut of home computers with wireless hookups.

Posted by: Soulie | March 8, 2006 10:34 AM

free at last

Posted by: oh | March 8, 2006 11:33 AM

News flash: I live in Ward 8, the city's traditinally "poorest" ward, and also the fastest growing with regard to new construction. Me and just about everyone on my street has a home computer. I have a laptop. I set up a wireless system in my house. I have DSL. I use the Internet to do most of my shopping, including grocery delivery, since I no where near a grocery store. Several of my neighbors are also wireless, because we're constantly picking up each other's signals.

There are also three public schools in close proximity, and a public library a block away. All could stand to benefit from wireless access.

Posted by: Alice Thornton | March 8, 2006 11:37 AM

"Can the provider write the service off as a donation?"

A well-meaning intention; but an insulting one... I mean how will the installatiion in affluent neighborhoods be financed or written off. Certainly not as a donation.

A "glut" of computers with wireless access or not should not preclude the poor or lower class from access to a free service provided by a municipality. Just because a Senator or City Council member wants WiFi in their neighborhood, or thinks its a good idea, doesn't mean the city should ALLOW the poorer regions to be ignored. Teachers, police, civil servants of all stripes live in and around DC. Some cannot afford the more expensive VA or MD cost of living. Should we not check capitalism? Especially when it improves the lot of the people who make this city run?

Granted, you may have issues with the way its is run, but crikey. We let capitalists run amok in Baghdad and, well....

If its free WiFi for the city, it needs to be just that. Free for the entire city.

Posted by: There's A Debate on This?! | March 8, 2006 11:59 AM

DC should be pushing free citywide WIFI for one simple reason: to not do so makes us look stupid and behind the times. We're trying like crazy to attract young affluent residents, since somebody has to actually pay taxes in DC. Creating city-wide WIFI in DC would not only be useful, it'd create a hipster buzz about the city and would help attract residents and put us at an advantage over suburban communities.

Philly is already getting tons of publicity mileage out of their WIFI plans

It's a no brainer. Of course, us being DC, we'll find some way to mess it up.

Posted by: HillmanDC | March 8, 2006 1:04 PM

It needs to be said Philadelphia's system will not be free. Their latest plan calls for a $20 monthly subscription to all but low-income residents, whose subscription is $10/month.

A 'public' system can be implemented that provides a degree of free access exclusive of the government. One or more of these models can be built well before the District's RFP is completed. I'm sure some of those that become established before a muni system pops up in D.C. will be able to compete.

Posted by: William Tucker, Jr. | March 9, 2006 10:00 AM

I'm not sure you can or should blame this on DC. No matter how city-wide wireless service is rolled out, some will receive it before others. I think the city acted in good faith and in the general interests of the public by putting conditions in their contracts that stipulate businesses can't just provide this valuable commodity to most affluent. And, as for how we in Dupont Circle ended up with wireless, I happen know a bit about that. First, Dupont's wireless serves only the area immediately around the circle, so it's not a benefit to people in their homes or businesses. Second, a private company set it up on private property in partnership with several other local players. Third, this company set up the system as a matter of right and so, in order to gain access to the affluent Dupont Market, they were not required to provide wireless to anyone anywhere else, or to provide any other benefits aside from wireless access to Dupont's residents or merchants.

I suppose, Marc, that I think you're critisisms are without merit.

Posted by: Mark | March 9, 2006 11:06 AM

The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. Apparently this city-provided service would cost more or less depending on what neighborhood you lived in. Last time I checked city services were supposed to be provided equally, not based on where you live.

If they want to provide the service at a cut rate based on INDIVIDUAL applicant's financial status, then that's a good thing. But to just arbirtrarily decide that a person in, say, Logan has to pay a certain amount for the service but that a person in the new Stadium area doesn't is just silly.

So a rich person in SE gets this service free or cut-rate, while a poor person in Logan pays a higher rate to subsidize the rich guy in SE? Stupid.

And I'm not sure it's even legal. It'd be like charging all Hill residents $100 a week for trash service or phone service, but then deciding that all Anacostia residents get these things for free. That's assuming that there are no poor people on the Hill and no wealthy or middle class people in Anacostia.

City-wide WiFi is a great idea. But this plan is just stupid, fraught with political peril, and unnecessarily complex.

Posted by: HillmanDC | March 9, 2006 12:17 PM

I agree with your general premise that wireless service, like phone and water, should be made available to everyone. For this reason, my preference would have been for the city to provide it themselves, and not encourage use of or permit public space for private companies to do it. But that is unfortunately beside the point at this date.
Regardless of who sets up the routers and antennae, some will get served before others. Where I agree with the critizism is that, by putting it to the private sector, there will be an immediate profit motive and areas companies perceive to have the most profit-potential will naturally be first served. I think the city's contract was a way at attempting to provide service accross the city. I don't know how it could have been done better unless DC did it themselves. But, as you note, we are DC...
Hey- I really hope you're wrong in writing that the charges will be based on neighborhood. That's a ridiculous model.

Posted by: Mark | March 9, 2006 5:14 PM

When individual internet users begin donating the amount of dollars to campaigns that telecom companies do, perhaps the laws will begin protecting our rights over those of Verizon and AT&T.

I used to think just being a constituent was enough. Not so anymore. Corporations pay a lot of money to pay representatives to ignore the interests of the people who voted for them.

Posted by: sd in md | March 9, 2006 5:54 PM

Sounds like the same thinking that came up with Congressional re-districting in Texas and the Medicare prescription "benefit". And as long as they cna get away with it, they will.

Posted by: ljd | March 9, 2006 7:44 PM

I get mail delivery, provided by the federal government for over 200 years, at no charge beyond the taxes I pay (even when I don't get around to filing, again). And I should. We recognise it's good for business and culture and general social cohesiveness. Bad for trees, but OK.
How is this different?

Posted by: Chas | March 10, 2006 9:21 AM

The Philly wifi network is not going to be offered for free. Get your facts right. Typical reporting from Wash Post.

Posted by: disappointed | March 14, 2006 2:19 PM

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