Public Wireless Internet Access

So last week several companies responded to San Fransisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's call to get all San Franciscans online be they at home, in a park or in a cafe and be they rich or poor.

Newsom set a goal of a free or inexpensive city-wide Wi-Fi network last year. He portrayed the idea as a way to boost San Francisco's technology credentials and help bring Internet have-nots -- especially the poor -- into the digital age.
Amongst the respondents was Google which explains why the initiative got as many column inches as it did. Already in SF wi-fi coverage is impressive with many cafe's, hotels, hostels etc. providing free wireless internet access. This is a massive help for visitors to the city, and great for residents who can use spare minutes to check mail or whatever in a variety of locations, universal city-wide free wi-fi would be awesome...

But there are issues, political, commercial and technological.

Technologically probably wi-fi is the most appropriate technology to provide blanket coverage; its uptake compensating for the relatively small 'cell size', WiMax may be ultimately be more economical but as yet is immature. It is however suggested that San Francisco would require 30 antennae per square mile; of which SF has 49. The cost of provisioning 1500 antennae in 1500 locations will be considerable but not every unit would require wired internet access, a mesh might require only a fraction to have such connectivity and others could be mounted anywhere that power was available. Lampposts, council housing, public buildings are already council owned so costs need not be necessarily prohibitive.

Commercially and politically there are questions to be addressed as to the role of the local authority in providing this 'infrastructure'. Is wi-fi comparable to, say, bridges, roads or trams? Should there be a public service obligation on somebody to provide universal wifi? Is the market going to provide citywide universal wi-fi without governmental intervention, and if so will it be timeous?

San Francisco is an obvious place for this to happen, loads of tech workers and a relatively compact city. I'm curious more about whether such an initiative could work in Edinburgh (or Glasgow, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen). Edinburgh is a city with many white collar workers in the finance and tech sectors, loads of students and a desire to grow (at least economically). The Scottish Parliament has at least halted the drain of headquarters in the city and it must be an aim for Edinburgh to attract new HQ's to the city. For this to happen there has to be appropriate infrastructure. Edinburgh City council have shown they recognise this through planned improvements in for example public transport. It seems to me that by becoming a wireless city Edinburgh would have many benefits to the city

  • more attractive as a HQ location
  • more inclusive of those on the periphery of the new economy (bridging the digital divide)
  • more attractive as a location for business in general
  • friendlier to tourists
  • easier digital delivery of council services
  • a great investment in the people of Edinburgh, e.g. skills development, quality of life improvement
As I understand the Google proposal the basic service would be 300k, plenty connectivity for email or browsing, with tiered pay-for options. Learning from the fubar of BT's more or less monopoly on the last mile it may be wise to ensure that access to all providers who are capable be available letting users choose a basic service, ad supported, or a higher option paid for in other ways. The role of the council might be to provide the basic infrastructure and let the market figure out the economics of it.

Posted by Paul in Scotland Politics at October 5, 2005 11:07 PM