Hazlett on Muni WiFi Flop

Viewing the failure of the much-ballyhooed municipal WiFi systems, Professor Thomas Hazlett points out that "Markets had figured out that what links your desktop in the den to your notebook down the hall may not scale." He cites the flop of muni WiFi as a "bad omen" for the FCC's free wireless plan, a federal version that seeks to deliver a substantial amount of frequencies to a bidder that will commit to providing "free broadband" filtered in part to screen out material deemed unsuitable for children.

Hazlett's comments came in an Ars Technica op-ed in which he examines the pattern of failure of "muni WiFi" systems in America's major cities and contrasts it with the huge growth and technical capability in DSL and cable modem subscriber growth from 2004 to 2007, when the number of residential broadband subscribers increased from 25 million to 62 milliion households and access speeds increased, as well.

Hazlett lays blame for the muni WiFi collapse on failure to deliver systems robust enough to provide sufficient coverage and connection strength, demands by municipalities for revenue cuts and other perks, and use of regulatory authority to limit coverage and stifle new entrants.

Philadelphia freedom, Ars Technica, December 22, 2008. By Thomas W. Hazlett.

"The FCC, seemingly impressed with the near-infinite hype-to-payoff ratio of muni wi-fail, is launching a federal version. In a policy gimmick endorsed by Chairman Kevin Martin, the Commission seeks to drop a chunk of frequencies to a 'bidder' (wired for M2Z, a start-up pasted together by former FCC officials) that commits to providing 'free broadband' with 25 percent of its bandwidth—connections filtered, by the provider, to screen out material deemed harmful to children. Folks may have learned something about the cost of using 'free' spectrum, so now the central planners are investing billions in valuable, exclusive frequency rights on this gambit. We’ve seen this movie, too.

"In 2005, Philadelphia’s Chief Information Technology Officer, Dianah Neff, lectured: 'Just as with the roads of old, if broadband bypasses you, you become a ghost town.' The Philly CITO surely did not know that, by 2008, well over 100 million U.S. subscribers would be linked to the Internet via advanced data networks, wired and wireless, virtually every one of them supplied by unregulated private competitors, none via municipal wireless. So, yeah, Philadelphia. We get it."

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