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Government Shouldn't Be in the Wi-Fi Business

By Bartlett Cleland

Last week the Washington Post featured a most fantastical story that the federal government is beginning the process of building nationwide Wi-Fi networks and will provide free Internet access to everyone. Within hours the story was thoroughly debunked as fantasy and exaggeration, nothing more to the substance than the years old white spaces proposal.

But, the article does make for a great case when it comes to the wild claims that municipal Wi-Fi, now broadband, supporters make. They promise, with apologies to the Beatles, rocking horse people eating marshmallow pies, with everyone smiling as you drift past the flowers. The reality is far less entertaining.

Municipalities around the country have tried to set up their own communications networks and failed, including bankruptcy of a private "partner," often resulting in taxpayer funds being wasted. Most recently the Groton, Connecticut "system" failed gloriously, wasting well over $34 million of taxpayers hard earned money - once again taxpayer money put at risk and squandered.

There are several inevitable problems with municipal Wi-Fi and broadband systems. Technological innovation continues to far outpace the speed of government, which simply cannot compete with the market. In other words, about the time the municipal system is up and running, private networks will offer something better, cheaper, and faster. Technology infrastructure investment is not for the faint of heart or the partially committed. One must jump in with both feet, update the technology and the business models often just to stay even with competitors.

Further, as online services continue to become more sophisticated, customers have become accustomed to regular upgrades, challenging the ability of governments to keep up with demand. The challenges are multiplied a hundred fold when the complications of delivering video and voice are added. Video services alone are in a constant state of upgrade, either in providing more channels, more programming, or providing services to customers to allow them to customize their own video experience, such as video on demand.

Complication equals costs, and hence places even more taxpayer money at risk because when these systems fail it is not investors who lose money but taxpayers. When local and state coffers are depleted because of these sorts of risky government bets, the cry is for more tax revenue or for a bailout.

Government has plenty to do without getting into providing Wi-Fi especially when the decision maker's heads are in the clouds, and the taxpayer money is gone.

Bartlett D. Cleland is Policy Counsel with the Institute for Policy Innovation. This article was originally published by IPI and is republished with permission.

(AP Photo)

 

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