Saturday, February 19, 2005

Rizzo comes out against Wi-Fi; I say: eh

Councilman Rizzo, in a follow up to Dianah Neff's CNET editorial defending the City's wi-fi plan, has written his own piece, slamming the Philly project. Maybe I should more call it "his piece," because as the Inquirer implies, he may not have exactly written some of the very tech jargon laced points himself.

Rizzo compares the Philly project to infamous Boston road project, the big dig. (If anyone doesn't know, the big dig is the billion dollars over budget Boston road project that has gone on for years.) The comparisons are just silly. And, as an aside, Rizzo comparing the project to the by far most infamous municipal project is a similar debate tactic to when people compare a quote from a politician to something that was said in the Third Reich- it is just dumb. In fact, I think there is an understood rule in debating that the first person to bring up Hitler loses. Well, when discussing municipal works, the first person to bring up the big dig should be similarly disqualified, because it is so out there, that it is useless as a comparator.

Rizzo says:
More than a decade ago, city officials promised to relieve traffic congestion with a new tunnel and street infrastructure, for a $2 billion tab. But today, with a running bill of more than $15 billion, the project is six years overdue and counting, while cracks in the tunnel's infrastructure are being discovered.

As the most expensive public works project in U.S. history, it has become a boondoggle. The Big Dig, it turns out, became a black hole for taxpayer dollars because city administrators and contractors weren't candid with state and local legislators about project costs, instead selling them on unrealistically low estimates.


Information technology professionals experienced in deploying large-scale Wi-Fi networks all tell us that significantly higher build-out costs, involving literally thousands of access points, will be required to deliver secure, scalable and reliable services, with user speeds greater than 1 megabit per second. And these don't include costs associated with much-needed network redundancy, customer service, antihacking security measures, billing and other administrative costs. Under these conditions, the cost of truly building out an advanced network could skyrocket.

I would assume Rizzo would agree that 11 million versus 15 billion is an inherently different proposition? And his point that the project involves "thousands of access" points you have to build? That just seems silly. This is not like we are talking about constructing towers here. You are essentially throwing up wireless routers on top of light posts, which is partly why infrastructure costs are reasonably low- there is not much building needed.

He also talks about how other cities have failed in similar type projects. The Inky article has some other experts who adequately dismiss his points here, so I will not address them here.

Rizzo also says silly things like this:
Further competition among wireless providers has already produced 93 "hot spots" in the city of Philadelphia as hundreds of wireless ISPs, big and small, compete for a slice of the action. The notion that we would use precious taxpayer subsidies to disrupt that competition--competition that would otherwise help bring service to underserved areas--seems a bit odd.
I guess I cannot confirm or deny Rizzo's numbers, but I will just say, if he is counting things like Starbucks as among these hotspots then he is being intentionally misleading, to put it charitably. And, where exactly, does he see evidence that this competition will bring service to underserved areas? He doesn't of course, he just makes it up.

Rizzo similarly says that Wi-fi will not close the digital divide because it will not deal with the fact that poor people do not have computers in their homes. So, in other words, instead of trying to come up with ways to make that happen (hell, even I have an idea for making it happen), he gives up.

It is a shame that the Councilman, instead of thinking on how to use this project as a great social equalizer for poor people all over the City, is willing to take the Verizon/Comcast company line that we should just let them do whatever they feel, at whatever speed they feel like doing it. And, if this project were going to be such a disaster, why would the big telecoms be fighting so visciously against it? They are screaming "unfair," which tells you that they obviously think it can work.

Yes, Philly is in some tight budget times. And, of course, the project could fail. But, we should never shy from being visionaries. As the NY Times stated, Philly could be the tipping point towards a country wide effort to ensure that poor people everywhere have access to the internet, and in cities across the country, you never are "off-line." Considering we are a City that finds millions of dollars of incentives for businesses and developers (which have on occasion left us with 40 million dollar holes in the ground), we can figure out a way to come up with this money. With all things, you must measure the risk/reward. Here, the scales are clearly tilted towards the reward, and so, the City builds.


At 12:15 AM, Anonymous PublicOrgTheory said...

Well put. Whatever axe Rizzo is seeking to grind, it has little to do with an $11 million wifi project. The Big Dig is perhaps the biggest red herring of modern times.

At 2:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doubt Rizzo has an ax to grind, he's
just parrotting his party's what business wants, business should get philosophy.

BTW, municipal wi-fi is evidently becoming a big issue all over the country. Right now a Texas state legislator has or is introducing a bill to kill low-cost muni wi-fi service altogether that may also have the, presumably, unintended consequence of prohibiting even free internet access at libraries.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous PublicOrgTheory said...

Sounds right, but the size of the investment is small enough to lead me to believe there are higher stakes here somewhere. Your note about broader implications across the country is a nice catch. I find it odd that anyone would invoke the Big Dig--the largest public works project in history--as a catch-all reason for government inaction. The project is so out of proportion to most other things the government might choose to undertake as to make the example absurd (except, of course, as a political tool).

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philadelphia's bold move appears to have caused other municipalities to look at doing the same thing.

Unsurprisingly, the wi-fi providers see this as a big threat to their business model, which I think it could be. Nothing springs big business into action faster than a threat, real or perceived, to their bottom line.

The GOP is the party of big business interests. We shouldn't be shocked that Verizon went right to the GOP-controlled state legislature to get a bill passed to make muni wi-fi nearly impossible. Although Rizzo may be an old-school Republican, he's still loyal to the party's business friendly ideals. Thus his op-ed piece.

I, too, find the Big Dig reference odd, but see it in the context of
"big gummit boogey man gonna get you" GOP political rhetoric.

The way to get someone like Rizzo on board is to tie muni wi-fi in with the cops and firemen. Something on the order of: if we have muni wi-fi, then police and firemen will always be able to communicate with each other if their radio system fails again.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous PublicOrgTheory said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Good points all. My thoughts on this may seem a little naive; just a modicum of thought on the topic would lead one to think about the implications for other locales (and for the companies interested in providing services to them, which would mostly be Verizon and Comcast). My assumption, which I've not made explicit, is that wifi service has almost become a commodity as it is. There's a potential revenue stream there, but not as much as one might think.

The idea about linking the service to police and fire is an astute one. I'm a little surprised to see the matter politicized at all (given that the battle at the state house seems resolved), but now that it is you have probably given a good hint at how it might be won in Philly.

Thank you--you've challenged me to think past my assumptions on this one, and I appreciate that.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the kind words. My hobby is observing human behavior and figuring out the angles.

I hadn't thought about wi-fi as a commodity, but it's a very good point. Dial-up internet service is a good example of your theory of communication services becoming "commoditized", IMO.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it's doubtful muni wi-fi can be stopped. The Verizons and Comcasts of the world can probably craft a good compromise where municipalities can offer a bare bones free wi-fi package and leave the value-added services to the marketplace. After all, today's "freebie" users are tomorrow's potential customers for expanded services.


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