A new report warns that cities considering municipal Wi-Fi shouldn’t fool themselves into believing that the experience will be as routine as running water, gas and electricity systems.
The study, conducted by the Reason Foundation and written by a former deputy director and acting director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning, outlines seven factors that municipal officials should address before moving forward with plans for municipal broadband and Wi-Fi to ensure that the projects are technologically and financially viable. Those issues include:
1. Competition: At the end of 2005, 67 percent of U.S. ZIP codes already had at least four high-speed Internet providers, 93 percent had two or more high-speed competitors and just 1 percent had no competitors, Reason states. So municipal cable and Internet offerings face stiff competition and are unlikely to grab a large market share unless they are willing to lose a lot of taxpayer money doing so, the firm asserts.
2. Performance competition: New government systems will have to offer higher speeds or lower prices to compete with private companies. Existing government systems will need to consistently upgrade their speeds or drop their prices to compete with private-sector improvements.
3. Continuous improvements: The real consumer price index for Internet services has fallen by 23 percent since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking it, in 1997. Unlike traditional government-owned utilities, the lightning pace at which broadband technology improves and prices fall is difficult for municipalities to match, according to Reason.
4. Technological change and “lock-in”: The market can get locked in to an inferior technology if government decides to subsidize the inferior technology, thus blocking out better or less-expensive technologies.
5. Obsolescence: Because wireless technology improves so rapidly, capital investment quickly becomes obsolete. Plans for government broadband need to assume faster depreciation rates than have been used for traditional government utilities. A workable plan for municipal Wi-Fi needs to cover operating costs and recover initial capital outlay in three to five years, Reason says.
6. Risk: Broadband is a risky endeavor, and governments must not finance it as though it is a low-risk infrastructure investment.
7. Uncertainty: Because taxpayers bear the financial uncertainty in their role as the owners of government broadband, officials should ensure the accountability and transparency in these projects is at least as good as that of publicly held companies.
The study also cautions city officials to beware of “geeks bearing gifts,” suggesting that such companies as EarthLink and Google are interested in providing free Wi-Fi, because the deals will give them rights-of-way and valuable access to public infrastructure, such as light and telephone poles.
“Exclusive access to rights-of-way and poles would bestow a significant competitive advantage on any firm selected to use them,” said Jerry Ellig, the report’s author and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, in a statement. “Local governments should beware of granting one Wi-Fi provider exclusive access to public assets, even if the Wi-Fi service itself is free of charge to users. Local governments should not let the sizzle of free Wi-Fi obscure the consumer’s stake in competition.
“Each government-provided or privately subsidized broadband plan has its own unique characteristics,” Ellig adds. “But no plan should be considered responsible until these issues have been addressed.”
Reason also has released a case study on iProvo, the municipal broadband system in Provo, Utah, that lost US$1.36 million in 2003, $1.42 million in 2004, and $1.67 million in 2005. Reason finds iProvo owes more money than it is worth — overall, assets grew by $2.2 million in 2005, but liabilities grew by $3.9 million.
The report finds this gap “shows every sign of increasing and will slowly eat away at iProvo’s value and prevent the city from ever getting out from under the debt,” the firm states. And after originally forecasting it would take 10,000 subscribers to break even, iProvo will now need 12,000 to 15,000 subscribers just to break even, according to Reason.
There are 7,700 iProvo subscribers, according to Reason.