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Public Or Private--Who Should Control Muni Wi-Fi?

Cities across the country are rushing to go wireless – it’s cheaper to install, cheaper for users than cable, much faster than dial-up and generally more cost-effective all around. Yet municipalities are running into opposition as they attempt to transform their cities into Wi-Fi hotspots. The central issue becomes: should local governments outsource their wireless initiatives to the private sector – or is this a case where government can actually compete against the private wireless industry?

Esme Vos, founder of muniwireless.com, says municipal wireless is an important initiative for all cities. It breaks open the DSL/cable duopoly that exists almost everywhere and provides a new area for competing service, she says. The prospects of city-wide wireless capability are endless – Vos says it would help low-income families get access to high-speed internet as well as allow city employees to access databases from anywhere. For example, in a wireless city police could monitor various video cameras while stationed in their squad cars.

And Steven Titch of the Reason Foundation, appearing alongside Vos on “Power Lunch,” doesn’t disagree. But he says the problem starts when government gets involved, as it almost always tends to fall short of expectations – especially when competing against a private industry, according to Titch.

Vos even agrees with Titch that it’s a better idea for municipalities to put their wireless plans in the hands of private companies – and most do, she says. Only a small portion of cities and towns around the country are using tax dollars to fund wireless initiatives.

There are a substantial number of large cities in the process of turning over their wireless plans to private firms. Among them: Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia, which are all tapping EarthLink to plan, maintain and run their wireless networks. Portland has contracted Microsoft and MetroFi for it’s network and San Francisco is in talks with EarthLink and Google to combine to provide a free wireless service to the city.

But Titch says San Francisco is a perfect exemplar of government’s sheer inability to get the job done. Even when they have nothing to lose (there is no financial risk to San Francisco in the proposal as the network will be built for free and run by advertisements), the deal is still stuck in political gridlock.

Some opponents of municipal wireless have brought up accidental censorship as another worry. These networks – especially the ones for larger cities – could become so crowded with users that some content is accidentally blocked. Vos dismisses this concern. Censorship, accidental or not, exists on wired networks and is a problem that should be addressed – but shouldn’t be pigeonholed as one that is exclusive to Wi-Fi.

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  • Sue Herera is a founding member of CNBC, helping to launch the network in 1989. She is co-anchor of "Power Lunch."

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