Ever been in an airport or city park with your laptop or other Internet-enabled device, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were free wireless Internet at this location?”
It’s that thought which sparked a discussion among government employees about whether Wi-Fi should be free, widely available to the public, and covered by the government.
Some thought that the Internet should be treated more as a public good, like water or electricity.
“It’s actually interesting to watch the process unfold because we are seeing what those who came before us had to go through to integrate gas/water/sewer etc. into our communities,” said Pam Broviak, assistant director of public works for the city of Geneva, Ill. “The main difference is that the utilities today seem to have more money and media to push their position. Unfortunately the right way to make the decision is to look at the benefits/costs/risks/consequences.”
Others didn’t buy into that argument, and thought that the Internet should be paid for by individual users.
“State, local and even our beloved federal governments are broke and cannot pay for what is on their plates today. Americans are so accustomed to the all you can eat buffet line for under 10 bucks that we expect it to translate to all of these other entitlements. Why not ease the policies and regulations to create an attractive opportunity for industry and the private sector to invest in the infrastructure where individuals will subscribe for the services,” said Colby Hoefar, a senior project manager for the private sector.
“As much as possible we should all pay for the goods and services we consume with the fruits of our own labor and only ask (not demand) others to lend (not give) us the fruits of their labor when we have no other alternative,” said Peter Sperry, a budget analyst in the private sector. “I will not ask the government to increase your taxes to pay for my Wi-Fi. I will resist efforts to increase my taxes to pay for yours.”
Issues of security and performance also got people talking, as many weren’t sure if having government control over Wi-Fi would degrade quality, safety or speed.
That was the concern of Assistant Division Chief of Systems for the Census Bureau, Jason Schaufele.
“Since there is no such thing as infinite band width, you would eventually have a saturated pipe. To deal with this, rules or policies for usage would need to be developed as well as enforcement methods. … Let’s also not forget that when you start filtering content and blocking sites, people are going to cry foul. And before long the ACLU is going to have municipality in court arguing about free and fair access.
“I like free stuff. But unfortunately in this case, pay-as-you-go is a better working model.”
There were even arguments about possible returns on investment if local governments subsidized part of the bill for Wi-Fi, especially in tourist areas.
“Perhaps business districts (like the Downtown Alliance in Manhattan) could pay for it. Search data and other information could be mined, and users could be fed advertising tailored to their use. This gives business some return on investment. Location based features could also help drive Wi-Fi users to various businesses,” added Benjamin Strong, director of marketing and public relations for Amver Maritime Relations.
Despite differences in opinion about who should pick up the costs for access, most said that Wi-Fi needs to be more readily available, and even more recognized that we’re becoming further dependent on Internet access. Past failed attempts to implement public Wi-Fi in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago may teach us something and get us closer to a finite answer, but the debate continues.
This article originally appeared at GovLoop.com.