TCS Daily

Top Down and Bottom Up

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 20, 2005 12:00 AM

As I write this, I'm in the back seat of a car heading down Interstate 81, accessing the Web via the Verizon EVDO card in my laptop. (And pretty zippily, too -- I'm getting around 150kbps even though I'm in the "national access" coverage area, not the DSL-speed "broadband access" area.) It rocks, and I'm delighted that Verizon is offering this service, even if the salesman who sold me the card last fall promised that Knoxville would be broadband by now, and it's not.

But I really don't understand Verizon's hostile attitude toward free wi-fi, and especially municipal wi-fi. Once again, Verizon's CEO is disparaging the idea, and once again I wonder why anyone would consider municipal wi-fi a threat to things like the EVDO card that I have.


There are some reasonable questions about municipal wi-fi: Will municipal governments log traffic, producing privacy problems? (You can bet that anyone who challenges a mayor or city council member will have his/her access records looked over by political operatives, if such records are kept). Will they keep up with improvements in the technology? Will they discourage competing systems? Will they succumb to the temptation to filter "unsuitable" content?


But as I've written before, the two services seem to me to be complementary, not competitive. To offer just one example, you really can't do wi-fi from a moving vehicle without major changes that won't be around for years, and no municipal wi-fi network will cover the vast expanses beyond the city and inner suburbs. In fact, it seems to me that municipal wi-fi might help "thin" services like Verizon's by getting people addicted to ubiquitous access and taking some of the load off those systems in dense areas.


I must be wrong about this, though, because -- as Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Net News keeps reporting, the big wireless companies (and especially Verizon) seem awfully anxious to put stumbling blocks in the path of municipal wi-fi. There's nothing illegal or improper, of course, about companies talking down competition, or hiring lobbyists to persuade cities to do things their way instead of somebody else's way, but there's nothing terribly impressive about it, either. In fact, the more those companies criticize the municipal wi-fi approach, the more it makes me wonder what, exactly, they're afraid of.


Perhaps they'll change their tune when, as Fleishman notes, they start bidding on those municipal systems. But for the rest of us, it seems to me that there are huge advantages in seeing both the top-down telco approach and the bottom-up wi-fi approach continue. Wi-fi exploded pretty much on its own, and municipal systems aren't likely to displace the sort of hacker-ethic amateurism that has fueled that explosion. On the other hand, the big wireless carriers offer the sort of investment-backed reach and stability that amateurism can't, and there's something to that, too. After all, Verizon's CEO cares if I'm unhappy with his service, even if he expresses those feelings poorly:


"Why in the world would you think your (cell) phone would work in your house?" he said. "The customer has come to expect so much. They want it to work in the elevator; they want it to work in the basement."


Yeah, they want it to work just like in the commercials. . . . (I guess this would be a bad place to complain about the large gaps in "national access" coverage in southwestern Virginia, too.) But despite the churlishness, I suspect that Verizon is more responsive to such complaints than a municipal wireless office would be, since they're likely to cost it customers. And municipal services are likely to be better when people have a standard for comparison, too. Being the only game in town is never good for service. The two products are different. As muni-wireless enthusiast Fleishman writes:


EVDO is fantastic technology that I'm in love with, but let's remember three salient points: limited spectrum available for 3G in this country; high cost for unlimited usage to deter too many subscribers; limited bandwidth compared to the backhaul capable with modern Wi-Fi (mesh or fixed hotspot or hotzone).


On the other hand, it's working for me as I zip down the road. Nobody's perfect, and as long as you don't have to pick a single approach, that's okay. I still think that both models have their places, and that the sniping between the two sides is kind of silly. Can't we all just get along?


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