world war E
dispatches from the network society


As many developed and developing countries attempt to catch-up in the race to informationalize their societies, municipal broadband wireless projects are proliferating through World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank lending as well as national public expenditure. Saturating the population with wi-fi is held to encourage a host of benefits, especially increasing human capacity and firm competitiveness.

However, much-touted projects in the U.S. have failed to materialize. Slate exposes some of the economic ecology underlying the failure by way of explanation: essentially, the major U.S. telecoms firms are too price-competitive (having long recouped their fixed investment costs) to permit any new service providers into the market. If municipalities want to offer wi-fi, they won’t be able to outsource it, but will have to invest massively to compete directly with the major firms by offering what they cannot: free, public access. For municipalities already stretched to pay police salaries, fill potholes and repair water mains, the cost is – for now – simply beyond public provision…unless the citizenry steps up.

One step would be to organize capital campaigns, on the model of NGOs and other charity organizations, to fundraise the fixed costs of a municipal wi-fi network. Even in well-connected areas, the potential of a lump-sum investment in public infrastructure followed by free access might tempt some to migrate away from current service.

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