Local government leaders deserve praise for pursuing the noble goal of free or low-cost Internet access for all via municipally backed Wi-Fi networks. But the slew of faltering efforts to roll out municipal Wi-Fi networks suggests it's time for local governments to consider new tactics.
Just what role should government play in erasing the digital divide? It's a question that's not easily answered, but it appears the knight-in-shining-armor role isn't a good fit.
The digital divide isn't a problem for government to solve. It's a problem the private sector needs to solve. The corporate world tolerates government intervention and will grudgingly take action if prodded by the threat of regulatory retaliation. But people have the power, through consumer opinion, to motivate businesses to try extra hard to solve a problem.
People can also take things into their own hands, and one approach that taps the power of average Janes and Joes is the "San Francisco Free the Net" campaign. It's a people-driven mesh network that, as of August 2007, counts more than 1,500 volunteers in San Francisco.
These people power an ever-expanding wireless network - a network that offers free Internet access. The technology behind the Free the Net movement is built by Meraki; a start-up founded in 2006 by a small team of Ph.D. students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company's self-described goal is "to change the economics of Internet access."
Setup is simple: A person buys a $50 repeater, and either plugs it into his or her own broadband DSL connection or cable modem (thereby donating unused broadband capacity to the network) or uses the repeater to wirelessly access another repeater plugged into a Meraki-sponsored DSL connection.
The repeaters connect to a Meraki-hosted back-end system, and a Web-based dashboard lets people control their own networks, set bandwidth limits and block unwanted users, such as spammers.
The company donated a limited number of repeaters to San Franciscans who want to join the Free the Net campaign - it's a model polar opposite of muni Wi-Fi - but that may well be what makes it succeed.
It's not a top-down network designed by some big company and made available only to people who agree to whatever conditions the company specifies, perhaps watching advertisements in exchange for "free" Internet access.
It's a bottom-up network built by participants themselves, and potential members don't have to agree to conditions imposed on them. They just get uncomplicated Internet access at the affordable cost of a $50 repeater.
In some cases, the best thing government can do to help people is simply get out of the way.