Free municipal Wi-Fi – the next big thing, again?

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It’s going to happen sooner or later. We’re hitting the wireless device critical mass where we need to be connected to the Internet all the time in order to function. And we need a lower price point for this pervasive connection.

Sure, right now you can buy 100 percent connectivity via a whole bunch of devices from your Wireless provider. I’ve got an iPhone with an unlimited data package through AT&T, and an iPad that I can connect via my cellular plan (but didn’t because the monthly fees were was so high my eyes fell out of my head.) I also have a Motorola Xoom but didn’t get it through my provider, so now I am at the mercy of whatever Wi-Fi signal I can grab.

I never understood what shambles Wi-Fi connectivity was in until I started depending on it.

Today’s “free Wi-Fi” is a joke

I’ve now tried to connect to complementary Wi-Fi on airplanes, trains, in coffee shops, and at a major university. Out of 75 free Wi-Fi experiments, only one actually worked (the university, of course).

Many hours have been lost trying to coax coffee shop routers into giving me enough juice to read Gmail, and to connect for a long enough spurt to read an article from “The Onion” but can’t seem to get a good enough signal from these providers to be productive.

To be fair to the coffee shop owners and airline service providers, dealing with a wireless router is not the easiest thing in the world. We need another (better) answer.

Free municipal service

Don’t laugh. The concept has merit even though prior executions haven’t gone well. The idea is that municipalities provide free Wi-Fi for their residents — “a router on every phone pole” so to speak.

Ten years ago, this was the hottest topic in municipal government with several cities (Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago among them) promising free Wi-Fi for all residents. However, instead of treating the Internet as a full utility, which would mean adding it to the city budget and developing a financing plan for the project, the municipalities simply turned over the project to new-entrant Internet carriers. And in that way, we all dropped the ball because new providers couldn’t compete with existing phone and cable companies’ infrastructure investments.

However, municipalities that took free Internet seriously, budgeting for it like a public pool, city park, or other muni service (like St. Cloud Florida, who enjoys a 77 percent use rate among citizens) have reaped the benefits of a more connected community and citizens with better access to information.

Maybe it’s time to take another look at this. Wireless devices have proliferated to the point where a city-wide, fully owned Internet utility could be a revenue generator. Maybe they could integrate this service into the Post Office system for a hugely ironic twist. (or maybe not) I’m just saying maybe it’s time to start talking about it again. It’s always been a good idea.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.