Friday, September 16, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Wi-Fi Brite in Ohio

I spoke with Dean Narciso this afternoon. He is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch and is working on a short brite for tomorrow. A suburb of Columbus, Worthington, announced a new Wi-Fi network yesterday. As I understand it, it is being billed as "Wireless Worthington" and the city council is very happy to have a "wireless downtown."

Nonetheless, the network is owned and operated by a private firm - HarborLink. It sounds like we have an example of municipal Wi-Fi that really isn't all that municipal. There is a contract of some sort between the firm and the city; but as it was described to me it sounds like a right-of-way access agreement. There is no payment from the city to HarborLink and no obligation for the city to maintain or expand the network.

HarborLink's business model is to generate revenues through advertising. They offer the Internet access at a price of zero to the people of Worthington. HarborLink absorbs the cost of the equipment.

Narciso called in light of this piece (adapted from this piece) which was distributed yesterday by the Buckeye Institute. (Don't miss other Ohio-specific communications policy analyses at the Buckeye website.)

It is an interesting development for the marketplace. It is nice to see competing business models for Internet access and as long as the risk to the city and its taxpayers is minimized and HarborLink did not receive any special privileges, this should be celebrated as an example of a dynamic market meeting demand with new supply. However, I'm skeptical that the business model will thrive without subsidies. I expect that over time consumers will be willing to pay for high-quality networks, frequently upgraded with private capital, instead of relying on public, commonly accessed networks. Then again, at least one firm makes the advertising model work pretty well.

Time will tell. At this point, HarborLink shows 54 locations in Ohio where they provide a hotspot. Curiously, 44 of the locations are at various Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar restaurants. The relationship of hot wings to hot spots is even stronger in many of the 22 states where the firm offers hotspots. In my home state of North Carolina, all nine hotspots are associated with a Buffalo Wild Wings location. Nothing wrong with that, per se. But it does make one wonder if the city council in Worthington are going to get everything they expect.

I'm not an expert technologist, but I do know that propagating Wi-Fi across a restaurant is significantly easier and cheaper than propagating a network across an entire suburb. But if they have figured out how to keep messy wing sauce from ruining diners' keyboards, perhaps the historic brick buildings of Worthington are no problem at all.

posted by @ 4:01 PM | Internet , Municipal Ownership , Wireless