Should the public sector provide free wireless networks?

Or rather, should the public sector be prohibited from providing free WiFi if they decide to do so?

The experience in Prague and Paris is that the EU competition people are going to be dragged into a public/private row they’d rather keep out of.

I’m not very familiar with the arguments in this debate. What do you think?

6 comments ↓

#1 John Lilburn on 08.25.07 at 8:34 am

It depends whether you think things such as street lighting or telephones should be provided by the council or a private telco. I’d class lightweight* wireless access the same as street lighting.

If a council wants to run such a network, and I’m all for that, then they should be allowed to. And before the free marketeers jump all over me, if there was a desire by (insert overpriced telco here) to run such a service you have to ask yourself why they aren’t doing so already.

* Lightweight, meaning very limited bandwidth for essentials such as Web browsing and email. I wouldn’t want the bandwidth sucked dry by people downloading massive media files. If people want that kind of usage they can pay (insert overpriced telco here) directly.

#2 Jonathan Bishop on 08.26.07 at 9:40 pm

Hi Tom,

After studying European Union Law for 3 years answering these sort of questions, I concluded that it is not necessarily against EU Law for the government to sponsor Wi-Fi access. Read the full post here: http://www.jonathanbishop.org.uk/weblog/display.aspx?Item=171

#3 Steve on 08.29.07 at 9:19 am

I agree with the above comment, and besides my understanding is that Councils could provide the service at a little or no increased cost as they roll out more online eservices which is part of the governments own agenda….see extract from Communities and local government website below

delivering part of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s March 2000 vision of all local councils offering all local services online by December 2005
achieving the SR2004 Public Service Agreement objective of, “assisting local government to achieve 100 per cent capability in electronic delivery of priority services by 2005, in ways that customers will use”.

it is a logical conclusion that they (Council’s) should also provide access to those services for all who want them irrespective of socio economic status.

#4 Paul Sanders on 08.29.07 at 1:17 pm

Street lighting is provided to help ensure public safety. I can’t see a safety argument for WiFi, but could see a regeneration, or arts and culture rationale. But whatever the reasons, having a potential public sector entrant to the local ISP market could significantly increase the risk to private investment, thus ensuring that even if there were a market it would never be supplied commercially. That would seem be an unnecessary cost on the public purse.

The reason telcos have not yet provided low-cost broad WiFi coverage is almost certainly because the demand is too small to justify the investment. Public providers would have to decide whether the demand that is there is coming from people whose use of the service would be a public benefit, and who cannot afford the £20 per month or less some current providers are charging.

For those who are in genuine need the excellent People’s Network provides both computers and internet access through public libraries, which has the additional benefit of placing access in a social and neighbourhood setting and one much more conducive to productive activity than the streets or coffee shops. The People’s Network is making WiFi access increasingly available. I’d suggest it would be much more civic minded to support local libraries than to seek to provide blanket WiFi coverage where there is no demonstrable demand, and where commercial operators are filling such demand as does exist at low cost.

#5 Mark Adams on 08.30.07 at 10:43 am

I suppose I am a pragmatist on this and would want to know how to achieve most efficiently the desirable goal of providing broadband access, but also in a way that isn’t inadvertently regressive (ie rich city types getting a free resource subsidised by poorer council tax payers who will never access the service).

Private services already ARE available fairly extensively in major cities – usually from about 7p a minute. A danger of providing it free in some areas is that the private services may be wiped out, with less accessibility as a result.

By the way, John posts as if he is too young to remember a nationalised telephone service – not only was that truly overpriced, but it was crap service too. Quite rightly, that is one bit of Thatcherism that the government will never overturn.

#6 nick humfrey on 09.06.07 at 4:59 pm

It seems to me that as a general rule if people who have a computer with wireless are likely to be in a socioeconomic group that can afford their own wifi. I think it’s likely to be regressive especially if it became so widespread you could get it at home. I’d love the council to provide me with free wifi. But I pay for it at the moment so it would be damaging private companies if they were to do so. I also agree that having it in libraries has given them an important extra function. I probably would never have started using my local library if I hadn’t originally gone there for internet.

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