My tax money is going toward a municipal Wi-Fi network being offered for free, and I have no objections. No, I haven't defected to the "commons" way of thinking that views government as an ideal provider of citizen needs. Rather, my town of Alexandria, Virginia, has chosen a very intelligent approach to what is a very thorny issue.
What do I like about Alexandria's approach? Well...
* It's limited in scope. Right now, they're just covering a narrow slice of Old Town, from Washington Street down toward the river. They also make it clear in the release that this is meant for outdoor use; they're not trying to get service into people's homes. They also have put it in the public libraries. I have a boatload of complaints about the Alexandria library system, which is far worse than either Arlington or Fairfax Counties, but I certainly don't object to Wi-Fi there. The city says it may expand to other pedestrian corridors if the King Street stretch is successful. Not sure how you measure success with a project like this, but the cost of expanding will still be a tiny fraction of what Philadelphia will spend to cover the entire city, outdoors and indoors.
* It's not trying to compete with commercial services. "Our project is very narrowly tailored to serve a unique outdoor area of our city," said E-Government Manager Craig Fifer. "Wireless Alexandria has virtually no impact on commercial Internet service providers, and we are pleased that Alexandriaâ€™s two largest providers have each said they have no objection to the service."
* It recognizes the security risks Kent has blogged about here. Here's what the city release had to say on that: "The network is not secured, which means that sensitive personal or financial information sent across the network will not be encrypted. Commercial Internet service is more appropriate for these types of uses." As an Alexandria taxpayer, I don't want my city facing onerous law suits from people who are victims of online fraud using the public network. Hopefully the city will be vigilant in communicating this point to potential users.
* It's cheap, relatively speaking. The initial equipment cost was less than $14,000, and there's an ongoing monthly cost of $650 for Internet bandwidth. Now, one could argue that the cost should be zero because there's no real demonstrated need for this and thus it shouldn't be done at all. That's a valid argument, but the same argument goes for flowers planted along public thoroughfares. Sometimes a small investment of municipal funds can bring intangible improvements. Having Old Town, even a narrow strip, under a free Wi-Fi cloud appeals to the tech geek in me. I'll be monitoring the costs, however, to see if they go beyond city expectations, which is entirely possible.
I can't say if I'll be bringing my laptop to King Street anytime soon. I'd prefer they do Mt. Vernon Avenue in my neighborhood, the Del Ray section, so I could surf for free at the fun bohemian coffee shop St. Elmo's. But I'll be curious, the next time I stroll King Street, to see how many takers the free service has found.