Free Wireless: Right or Privilege?

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In recent years, many U.S. states have taken the legal stance that they permit their citizens to drive automobiles, asserting that it’s a privilege, not a right. Indeed, they claim it’s their right to issue a driver’s license or not. Thus, according to them, they have the power to grant or withhold the “privilege” of operating a vehicle. (Interestingly, the driver’s license used to be nothing more that a legal form of ID that demonstrated the bearer passed a test and adequately understood the rules of the road. Now it’s nearly impossible to legally drive—and, ironically, buy alcohol—without one.)

So how is this relevant to wireless? The answer is this: It’s important to understand how political leaders and legislators frame the discussion about the services they provide—or intend to provide—to the public, and then consider what the implications of that might be. Wireless networks are a hot topic of conversation among politicians these days, many of whom want to subsidize access for all, and turn entire cities and other geographic regions into hot spots.

Take, for example, two high-profile mayors of major U.S. metropolitan areas who’ve spoken on this subject recently. The first, Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, termed wireless a “fundamental right” and a “civil rights issue,” in a speech last year, and then promised constituents a municipal wireless network. After a long, fair bidding process that included an all-expenses-paid-by-Google visit to resort town Davos, Switzerland, Newsom settled on—surprise!—Google to provide that network.

The second mayor was the pride of Chicago, “Little” Richard Daley, whose most notable recent act in office was firing several of his own appointees after it was revealed that they awarded fat contracts to trucking companies belonging to friends of theirs. That wasn’t even the scandal, though. The problem was the deals involved “ghost payrolling,” in which many of the “drivers” of these trucks collected a paycheck for doing absolutely no work whatsoever.

But I digress. Daley has discussed a wireless plan for Chicago akin to that of San Francisco, which he said would close the “digital divide” between the “haves and have-nots.” “(T)he people on the wrong side of the divide generally have lower incomes and less education,” Daley said in a recent speech. “When we make modern computer and Internet technology available across Chicago, we are giving every person in Chicago the same chance for a good life. We’re improving our children’s education. We’re working to end poverty. We’re creating a more modern, sophisticated workforce. And, most important, we’re creating hope and opportunity.”

That all sounds very nice, but there are a few problems with Newsom and Daley’s respective lines of reasoning. Starting with the former, if wireless access is a civil rights issue, are cities that don’t institute municipal wireless networks failing to uphold a basic human right? For instance, Deltona, Fla. city commissioners recently decided against developing a wireless network, stating it wasn’t a “priority.” Should the United Nations pass a resolution condemning this flagrant mistreatment of the citizens of Deltona?

There might be more merit to Daley’s argument about the digital divide, but even this is somewhat misleading. The gap he speaks of is just as much related to hardware and software as it is to the Web. Are people who are too poor to afford wireless Internet access going to have laptops? If they don’t, will the city of Chicago buy everybody one? Plus, as critics have pointed out, programs such as San Francisco’s operate on a two-tier system: a very slow but free version, and a faster level offered for $20 a month. Chicago’s plan might be different, but in San Francisco, the digital divide has been built into the wireless network itself. (Fascinatingly, Google provides sterling wireless service free of charge to all residents within its hometown of Mountain View, Calif.)

Getting back to the question posed in the headline—whether free wireless access is a right or a privilege—the answer is neither. In our free-market economy, it’s our right to purchase any product or service we like, provided it’s not banned and we paid an agreed-upon price to the seller for it. (And “free” is a misnomer: Even if a municipal government foots the bill, we’ll still pay for it in taxes, fees or, most likely, both.) And free municipal wireless network doesn’t seem to be a privilege, either. Thus far, we’ve seen that service is slow, it’s not really free and (I know I’m going out on a limb here) the security probably sucks even worse that usual. So to any mayor or other politician contemplating a free municipal wireless network, I say: Leave it to the professionals, please.

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