Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Think critically about municipal Wifi

You may have read this Enquirer editorial that raises some questions about municipal wifi. It doesn't fully commit to an opinion one way or the other, but importantly it includes this paragraph:

"But the city should seriously consider the warning signs Tuesday's AP story noted regarding municipal Wi-Fi - and at least learn from other cities' mistakes. Critics point to wasted tax dollars, incomplete systems, and lack of usage among residents in other cities. If not done right, municipal Wi-Fi could become a mere toy for tourists and tech-savvy residents, more a bragging point than a practical utility."

I laughed a little bit when I read this because only yesterday I read this article on entitled "AP article critical of muni Wi-Fi is wrong: most cities are not using public funds". Forgive my quoting it at length:

"I have seen pieces like the AP article before making their way around the Internet (recall the fuss last spring about St. Cloud). When news agencies like the AP write something, it tends to spread like a brush fire throughout the US. It's a cheaper, more efficient way to fill the space in your newspaper. Depending on the mood of the editor that morning, a newspaper might put on a more lurid headline like this one (my personal favorite): Wireless Projects Drain City Budgets, which replaces the more sedate Cities Struggle With Wireless Internet. In fairness, most AP reporters I've talked to have been meticulous about their fact-checking.

In the end stories like these, including the ones favorable to citywide Wi-Fi, focus too narrowly on Internet access – or an even narrower subset of that called web surfing -- as if that were the only point of setting up a municipal wireless broadband network and its only use. What regular readers of this website know is that these networks are being deployed for many more uses: public safety (police, wireless camera surveillance and so on), wireless automated meter reading, mobile office use by inspectors, traffic management, parking control, voice over Wi-Fi, vehicle and asset tracking, and about a dozen other things you could think of if you spent five minutes with your eyes shut in a quiet room drowning out the noise from all of these “news” reports. Just read any of the RFPs I've posted on this website. Almost all of them want to use it for public Internet access and municipal applications.

So "failure" or "success" should include an assessment of whether those services are working well. Of course in most cities, they're still rolling out these services so it's difficult to say. But some are already up and running with automated meter reading and public safety applications. Where are the reporters crawling around checking on the wireless meter reading systems at cities like Corpus Christi? Anyone out there concerned about the public safety agencies using not just unlicensed (2.4 Ghz) Wi-Fi but also the dedicated 4.9 Ghz space to “surveille” us with their wireless cameras? Does this type of surveillance work? (In many places, crime has dropped dramatically where they have installed cameras). These are all relevant factors in determining whether or not the network is doing what it's been set up to do. "

Now, I have never believed the Enquirer to be a paragon of journalistic insight. I myself never read it, unless a particular article is specifically pointed out to me. But in this case, since I am somewhat more interested in muni-wifi than many other issues, I felt compelled to point out their shortcomings.

I will be the first to admit that there are good reasons to be for and against municipal wifi. I happen to be in favor of it. But the most important thing is that people don't start throwing around arguments and citations that don't make sense.

Please, don't trust everything you read. Especially in the Enquirer.


Public Web access is crucial need for Cincinnati

City 'Wi-Fi'? Here's Wi, and Wi not

AP article critical of muni Wi-Fi is wrong: most cities are not using public funds