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.
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