Designed in 2 Minutes?

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Free wireless access for all. Is it desirable?

The city of Philadelphia in the USA has announced ambitious plans to cover the entire of the city with Wi-Fi wireless network access.

The rationale is that "for a city to succeed in the future, it must be a digital city", according to Dianah Neff, the city's Chief Information Officer. This presents quite a stark contrast to what many people in other big cities would consider as what their city needs to be successful. Surely good economic stability, low crime rates, and a first-class transport system rate higher? Or perhaps the Philadelphians believe that universal network access for all will help to facilitate this utopia.

Whatever the reason, it has to be said that free Wi-Fi access for an entire city is quite high on the 'cool things for a city to have' list, along with giant ferris wheels and enormous multi-million-pound marquees, and I can see that it would bring benefits to business and home users living in the area.

Communications companies in the city, on the other hand, aren't so happy. They're worried about losing potential revenue and are currently threatening to block the entire project from going ahead. The project planners argue that the project will be a benefit to all, and will help to bridge the digital divide as residents can get access to the internet using just a standard computer and Wi-Fi card, without any need to set up costly broadband lines with telcos. Give your great-aunt a laptop and web browser, and she can sit at her desk and keep in touch without having to sign any contracts or plug in any cables.

But my concern is that, as other rich cities (this is a $10m project which will cost a further $1.5m/yr to maintain!) follow suit, poorer cities which can't justify this expenditure will be perceived as under-developed, and a new crack will appear in the digital divide.


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