Muni-Wireless in Distress: What Happens Now to Digital Equity?
by Alan R. Shark, Public Technology Institute Executive Director

Published with permission from the December 2007 PA TIMES, monthly newspaper of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA).

Those closely following what has been called the "Muni-Wireless movement" have reached a near state of hysteria with the recent announcement that Earthlink was initiating a strategic pullback from the dozen or so communities that they had invested in, and had been committed to build out city-wide wireless networks.

With this announcement nothing less than a shock wave permeated the blogosphere regarding the future of Muni Broadband. After all, losing such a high profile backer, which for a moment in time appeared to have deep and sustainable pockets of investment cash, has left a giant hole as well as question mark. The question is, what do we do now?

Certainly, with the Earthlink pullback many localities must go back to the drawing board regarding muni-wireless. It doesn't help that such a visible departure has left a void when it comes to big-name financial backing.

Despite some gloom and uncertainty, I view this as a period of opportunity to enable us to re-think muni-wireless. Even the term itself is somewhat misleading in that it suggests one type of locality and one type of service offering. To be clear: there is muni-wireless, and then there is "muni-broadband" which, in theory at least, comprises both fixed (wired) and wireless.

To me there are at least three subsets of muni-broadband-urban, suburban, and rural-and I maintain each requires different models and thinking. To help us understand the greatest variance let's take the two key economic variables-distance and density.

Incumbent telecommunications providers (telco & cable) are most able to offer cost-effective service offerings when population density is high and distance to reach this density is short. Compare this with a rural setting where population density is light and distance is long. No wonder rural America is hurting when it comes to broadband choices.

Breaching the digital divide is a governmental responsibility no less important than a minimum wage, basic health care, and the guarantee of essential services. The City of Philadelphia has stated that one prime motive in pursuing muni-wireless was to help bridge the digital divide by providing broadband connectivity to a segment of the population that is becoming increasingly disenfranchised by not having either access or affordable broadband connectivity and services as those who are able to afford it on their own.

This strategy can best be framed under the heading 'social equity in the digital age'. Most notably, the City of Philadelphia was the first city to begin planning for such an undertaking- with Digital Equity as being the chief driving force. Moreover, while Philadelphia was the first city to publicly promote the digital equity mantra it was certainly not alone in such thinking. Other cities were lining up to emulate much of the Philadelphia model.

Having a deep-pocketed service provider as the main backer such as Earthlink solved the huge issue of addressing the digital divide while the company was left to market other services to a public that was hopefully willing to pay fair market prices for wireless Internet connectivity.

Time and circumstance, however, made things increasingly difficult for Earthlink. The previous CEO and his team where committed to at least a five-year plan and perhaps if not for his untimely death Earthlink would still be very much in the game. To be fair, the new leadership team inherited a company that was sliding downhill where market forces were rapidly changing not only the marketplace-but also most of the original assumptions about the marketplace.

Newer user applications require more bandwidth, which translates into greater infrastructure costs. The telcos were not standing by as they continued building out private broadband networks of their own. In some markets the price of DSL (fixed) broadband has come down as to be highly competitive with that of dial-up.

So, the appeal to the larger marketplace for broadband has grown both in service offerings (fixed and wireless) as well as price flexibility. With price fluctuations being what they are, one can reasonably question the original assumptions that only wireless broadband was the most cost-efficient means of delivering Internet connectivity to the disadvantaged and underserved.

Therefore, it appears the real loser may be the poor and economically disadvantaged. To make matters worse, as bandwidth requirements increase so, too will prices. The question then is: what is a local government to do?

First, I start with the notion that if the locality doesn't act who will? In my mind, local governments have a moral, if not economic obligation to do something meaningful. Secondly, it need not be astronomically expensive.

This becomes increasingly important when most of us readily accept the fact that increasingly we gain most of our information by being on-line. As social networking takes a greater hold on our society the digital divide will not only worsen it may cause economic harm to a class of citizens already under distress.

Consider the growth of community-based web portals that provide employment, training, healthcare, and other social services information. Forms can easily be filled out, and critical information is provided about safety in the community. All of this becomes meaningless if one does not have access to the Internet. Thus, these individuals become further disenfranchised.

Here are but a few of the many options that local governments can employ to help those in need.
    Wireless broadband, namely Wi-Fi for now, can still be offered but in a different pattern. Call it a wireless zone, pod, cluster, or island Wi-Fi systems can be built in specific localities. Street signs may have a special symbol denoting where wireless is offered. A tougher challenge is to get the signal into the home or apartment. Here a locality can offer the necessary equipment free or at a discount or on loan.
    Next, a locality would need to provide low-cost computers and set-up. We need more than a connection because it is meaningless without the ability to have the right apparatus to make use of the connection. Luckily, we are seeing more Wi-Fi devices that can serve as "mini-computers" and the price of laptops has come down dramatically.
There is room for some creativity in accomplishing this. I can envision donations from corporations, grants, loans, and maybe even the possibility of checking out a laptop from the library or school.
    Create and encourage the use of expanded 'Technology Centers' within libraries, community centers, and senior centers where high speed Internet is available along with appropriate training. Here there is a wonderful opportunity for volunteers to help in providing the training. Special hours of extended operation may have to be part of this enterprise-but the cost is far cheaper than to blanket an entire city or county with wireless broadband.
    Consider offering stipends for those who qualify for some form of needs test to receive monies - perhaps matching funds - to provide low cost DSL or cable where a deal may be struck with an incumbent provider. It's really in their interest to provide such services to those who wouldn't otherwise be a customer. Once people become "hooked" on broadband they may be able to advance themselves economically to be able to afford such services in time on their own.
Many communities need to get away from the idea that only wireless solutions will work. In the end, it will be a combination of many types of broadband delivery systems.
    Serve as an "anchor tenant" and develop a public-private partnership that may cover a broader coverage area. For those localities with tourism, one may want to offer web portals for today's smaller and smarter devices. The iPhone, which just sold its one-millionth device, is a startling example. This new device and others yet to come to market are wonderful hand-held computers that can surf the web with ease. It has raised the bar as to the possibility for newer applications that are as exciting as they are practical.
So what does an 'anchor tenant' mean you ask? It suggests that a locality invests money of its own; it guarantees that the city or county would pay for internal operations that are appearing to have some impressive R-O-I measures in terms of efficiencies in scale.

This could translate into less 'truck rolls', less trips to the office for those in the field, savings in energy and fuel, time in processing forms, and other paperwork, less mistakes in reading poor penmanship (a dying art at that), and faster payments and processing of both monies and information.

With the Earthlink pullback we realize, as many of us did from the start, that nothing is truly free. Everything has a cost. However there is also a cost in doing little or nothing. We cannot afford to further disenfranchise a significant and underserved portion of our population.

I believe that it is time to take a hard look at the "why" of Wi-Fi and focus on those in most need as opposed to focusing on the technology. Who will be the ones to be targeted? What will they need by way of equipment and training? Do an ROI on the cost of blanketing an entire city or locality versus the cost of a targeted approach.

There are answers and solutions, and again we must recognize the cost of not acting.
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