Philadelphia has the right idea when it comes to Wi-Fi. According to an article by the Associated Press, Philadelphia is considering a plan which would effectively make its entire 135 square miles one huge Wi-Fi hotspot. The city would either offer this service for free or for a nominal fee much cheaper than the exorbitant rates charged by most ISPs these days. This has to be the best move I’ve ever heard of by a municipality regarding Internet Access.
Among other things, this will enable all the city’s residents, wealthy and poor, to have access to the world’s most elite resource for information and knowledge. I see this as one way to help shorten the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in our society. Knowledge is power, and nothing is more beneficial in today’s world as free access to that knowledge which the Internet can provide.
According to the same article, New York is considering something similar, but their plan is reported to involve leasing municipally-owned space on city lamp posts to companies like Verizon or T-Mobile. Presumably, these companies would then put Wi-Fi APs on top of the lamp posts to extend their subscription-based "hotspot" services to the entire city. I haven’t found a news source to confirm that yet, but I can’t imagine the plan being any different.
So what’s wrong with New York’s idea?
Simple: it’s just as greedy and elitist as the "hotspot" idea was to begin with. I have a wireless-enabled laptop that I bring with me all the time. I’m almost never without it anymore. The problem is that its usefulness is severely limited because I don’t have a subscription to any hotspot service. Frankly, I don’t have the money to spend on it. I’m not rich, and I already pay for a cable Internet connection via Road Runner. I paid for my computers, both of them, and I paid for my wireless router at home. (Technically, I believe that’s actually a violation of Road Runner’s terms of service, which just goes to show you how greedy they really are.)
The Internet should be free. Currently, I’m writing this entry from Saint’s Alp Teahouse on Bleeker street. They offer an 802.11g Wi-Fi network for no charge. They’ve actually got a lot more money from me than they would have otherwise because of it, too. I come here to work, to read the news, and to blog. Plus, the tea is great.
I sincerely hope Philadelphia officials go forth with the plan to offer free Wi-Fi city-wide, because if they do other major cities who are planning to charge for the service will be pressured to reconsider. It will also put a heavy strain businesses which have made their livelihood based on offering access to the Internet for a fee. Free government-supplied access to the Internet is a step in the right direction for all.
As an afterthought, this whole thing is making me very interested in the infrastructure that is necessary to maintain such a network. In San Francisco, I know that there is quite a strong movement in which ordinary tech-savvy citizens have set up their own free wi-fi networks across neighborhoods, and I am wondering if something similar exists in New York. I’d be interested in setting up one of these networks if it’s at all feasible. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know. Maybe we can get something started. :)