On today's Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Andy Kessler weighs in on the debate over Philadelphia's municipal Wi-Fi ("Mu-Fi") experiment. It's hard to choose sides in this debate, says Kessler, mostly because both sides are being a bit disingenuous about what's at stake. On one hand, the city of Philadelphia is contextualizing its Wi-Fi initiative as a way to help the city's poor and disadvantaged bridge the Digital Divide, while Verizon complains about the meddling of "public sector bureaucrats" in what should be a private sector affair. In reality, though, companies like Verizon view Mu-Fi as a radical threat to their domination of telecom and cable, while the city of Philadelphia actually views the municipal Wi-Fi experiment as a way to save $2 million each year on its citywide IT budget. Confused yet? (No wonder that the public Wi-Fi debate in New York has confused so many people...)
Kessler admits that, he too, is puzzled by the gap between the rhetoric and the underlying economics:
"The battle royal between the city of Philadelphia and Verizon over who will provide citywide wireless Internet access plans couldn't be more confusing. Free-market types have got to root for publicly traded Verizon over any local, politicized branch of government, right? C'mon, isn't this City Hall we're talking about--a building wrapped in red tape (as if by Christo)! Their track record teaching our kids, hauling our garbage and running the buses does not portend success. Surely they're not first choice for megabit broadband.
But then, why hasn't Verizon already slapped up Wi-Fi hotspots in the city? The estimated cost of $9 million to $13 million to cover 135 square miles is a drop in the bucket to their billions. The PR from bridging the Digital Divide for "low income, minority, disadvantaged neighborhoods" (as Philly's chief information officer, Dianah Neff, put it) would be priceless."
Anyway, Kessler has a lot more to say about the conflicting aims and goals of the two parties. What happens in Philadelphia will no doubt affect the debate in New York City over whether or not to build a municipal Wi-Fi network. It's not just New York, though, writes Kessler. A whole host of cities across the nation -- including San Francisco, Atlanta and Tempe, Arizona - are now getting in on the debate, ensuring that the fight will be bitter, ugly and bruising over public Wi-Fi: a battle of two heavyweights -- the bureaucrats and the monopolists.