“Earlier this month, Philadelphia became the latest municipality to throw its hat in the Wi-Fi ring and enjoy an image bounce that would be the envy of any presidential candidate.
Civic interest in Wi-Fi makes municipalities look sexy and modern. Less certain, however, are their chances for success as providers of emerging communications technology. Offering wireless broadband is a new course for cities and towns, say observers, and one that may not be quite as easy to navigate as the idea’s popularity implies. Indeed, the City of Brotherly Love was not announcing a successful trial, or even a timeline for wider deployment–but merely the formation of an executive committee to study wireless networking options.
These days, Wi-Fi is shorthand for wireless mesh networking technology. Instead of connecting to the Internet through a cable or telephone line, users are free to roam while their PDAs and laptops ferry data packets through radio waves and across a series of fixed access points. The average range is about 50 meters. Airports, shopping malls, coffee houses, and even campgrounds are actively courting the digital crowd by offering Wi-Fi service.
One reason cities and towns appear eager to leap into the wireless fray is the inclination–and pressure–to serve their constituents. “Local governments very much want to be more citizen-friendly,” says Joe Pisciotte, professor of public administration at Wichita State University and former council member and vice mayor for Wichita. That reality is why residents can now accomplish online just about any task for which they once had to traipse to city hall, from renewing drivers’ licenses to obtaining building permits. “Pair that with the reality that cities are always passing the tin cup,” Pisciotte says, “and why not provide a legitimate technological service like Wi-Fi to citizens and perhaps also get new revenue sources?”
The wrinkle in the public-service spin on Wi-Fi is who will bear the cost for the service. The answer splits proponents into two camps, and both are problematic.”