The Problem with Wi-Fi in Boston, and Everywhere Else

News came today that Boston will have to wait to have citywide wi-fi. We aren’t technically, or financially, ready yet. Here’s hoping we never are.

The problem is muni wi-fi doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work on a large scale. In towns where there are fewer intrusions—fewer people, fewer tall buildings, fewer competing networks—it actually works well. The mistake of metropolises, however, has less to do with their density than their frugality.

Everybody wants the Internet. Nobody wants to pay for it. Other cities have adopted these public/private partnerships in which companies sign deals with cities to provide the muni wi-fi, with the companies charging for the wi-fi’s use.

Boston’s plan is a little better; the city created a non-profit to oversee the muni plan. But this non-profit is like all others since it relies on organizational donations. If we are really interested in citywide wi-fi, we need to pay for it: with our tax dollars.

As this Slate piece makes clear, “Real public infrastructure costs real public money.”

St. Cloud, Fla., a town of 28,000, has an entirely free wireless network. The network has its problems, such as dead spots, but also claims a 77 percent use rate among its citizens. Cities like St. Cloud understand the concept of a public service: something that’s free, or near-free, like the local swimming pool. Most cities have been too busy dreaming of free pipes to notice that their approach is hopelessly flawed.