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."
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