Free Municipal WiFi (08 Mar 2005)

Lessig writes a satirical reply to a bill on the desk of the governor of Philadelphia which would prevent the state from funding free-to-use WiFi networks. I happen to think that Lessig's condemnation of this is ill considered.

I believe that some products don't work in a free market, while others should only ever be setup in one. National defence is an example of the first and Lessig is correct that street lighting probably is too. Lots of things are at the other end, luxury items most surely.

It may be reasonable to worry that a bill which prevents the state from offering any service which could be provided privately is quite stupid, but this has been mixed up with the idea that telecoms companies are using the legislative process to destroy `competition' from the state in the broadband market. The latter feeling rests upon the assumption that it's a good idea for the state to offer free-to-use WiFi and Lessig's writings are being used to support that.

So where is WiFi on the scale from national defence to chocolate cake? The closest example is mobile phone service. This isn't provided by the state, and I've never heard anyone suggest that it should be. Certainly this leads to some duplication of base stations, I'm sure. But more importantly it has lead to better phone service through competition. Does anyone believe that the quality of service would be better, or the costs lower, if mobile phone service was provided by the state?

So why should WiFi be `free'? (I've used to quotes because, of course, everyone is forced to pay for it, it's just mashed together with the rest of the local tax.)

There may be some argument that people need broadband in the same way that public libraries are a good idea. But even I wouldn't suggest the broadband is that important. Indeed, broadband usage in the US has fallen (in terms of world rankings) quite sharply in recent years suggesting that American people agree. If there was demand for broadband then I suspect companies would be offering it in more areas of Philadelphia already.

New Dr. Who

I'm now utterly convinced that the leak of the first episode of the new series of Dr. Who was not a cunning viral marketing ploy. It's rubbish. It plays like a episode of Neighbors with a phone box in it. The special effects of the old series were charmingly primitive. I'm not sure if the effects in the new series were trying to emulate that or if they were just dire. I couldn't even watch it all the way through.