Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city in which I live, has recently been conducting trials of citywide WiFi technologies. Mayor George Heartwell and the City Commission have an impressive vision of the potential offered by municipal wifi, not just for helping the general community leverage online tools, but also to connect together public services and make service providers more efficient. Unfortunately that vision isn’t shared by some of the current infrastructure providers, or all State Congresspeople, and their are moves to introduce legislation at state and federal levels to block such plans.
Doc Searls has a piece at linuxjournal.com about the more general threat posed to the public internet by the increasing dominance of US telephone and cable companies. It’s a long piece and the third section gets fairly technical, but it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in maintaining the freedom of the net.
One of the less cataclysmic outcomes he describes relies on these municipal WiFi projects, and there are many reasons I prefer that outcome to the suggestion that Google (or other private providers) might become WiFi providers. Neither outcome is likely to provide free bandwidth, and both would result in control remaining centralised (whether internationally, nationally, or on a city-level) but municipal wifi would ensure that control of network infrastructure was metered with the same democratic controls that govern other services such as education and policing provision.
It’s been some while since the public has had to deal with such a significant shift in what constitutes a ‘public service,’ those things that are essential infrastructure for us to efficiently live our lives. We may seeing with the increasing dominance of the net in our lives, and it’s important that we all ensure that we aren’t legislated into a position where we (the people) can no longer determine what we want government to provide for us (to be clear: I am not necessarily calling for increased government provision, I want to ensure that the demos can decide what it asks its government to do). It may be that WiFi provision is where that debate really heats up.