Taking The Muni Wi-Fi Battle To Ridiculous Extremes In Spain
By Mike Masnick, Tue Nov 30 23:00:00 GMT 2004

While the world focuses on the battle for municipal Wi-Fi in Philadelphia, the Spanish government has decided that any kind of government funded Wi-Fi, no matter how limited, is unfair. Why not just ban Wi-Fi completely, unless offered by a commercial provider?

The story over municipal Wi-Fi in Philadelphia has received a tremendous amount of attention over the last few months. That went into overdrive recently, when a bill in Pennsylvania that would prevent municipal broadband and telco offerings caught the attention of the national press. Similar bills exist in a number of states, and the Supreme Court specifically said such bills were perfectly legal earlier this year. However, because the press linked the overly covered story of Philadelphia's Wi-Fi to Verizon lobbyists supporting the Pennsylvania bills, a perfect local government vs. big company type of news story was born -- even if it wasn't entirely accurate.

However, the question of municipal broadband (and other services) isn't likely to go away any time soon. Incumbent broadband providers claim that governments have an unfair ability to compete, by using tax dollars to supply the broadband without having to pay taxes themselves for the network. They also claim that there's plenty of competition. On the other side, however, governments point out that if incumbents provided the necessary level of service, the question of muni broadband would never even need to be raised. There are certainly enough examples of successful muni broadband projects to show that a well-executed offering can clearly help out a city.

The argument against muni Wi-Fi is being taken to somewhat ridiculous extremes in Barcelona, Spain. Broadband Reports points out that a local Wi-Fi network in the city has been shut down by the Spanish Telecommunications Market Commission (CMT), claiming unfair competition. While it's a bit odd for them to wait until the network was already up and running, the details make it clear how badly some are overreacting to muni Wi-Fi offerings.

Barcelona's Wi-Fi "network" isn't what most people think of when they hear about muni Wi-Fi. First, the coverage is more along the lines of a hotspot model, with certain areas given coverage, rather than the entire city. More importantly, though, is that this Wi-Fi network is for a very specific purpose: providing local information to residents and tourists. To that end, those who access the network (for free) can only surf to a grand total of sixty websites which provide that information. Apparently, being able to surf to those sixty websites is considered unfair competition against local broadband providers who otherwise wouldn't be able to sell service for the people in Barcelona who only desire to surf information about the city.

It's not hard to take this to an even more ridiculous extreme. If the city can't offer Wi-Fi to people in the city looking for more information, then can anyone really set up a Wi-Fi access point at all? After all, your average, unprotected, access point provides access to a lot more than those sixty sites, and therefore must be seen as competition to the incumbent providers as well -- especially since they don't pay taxes on offering the free service. It's not hard to take this ruling and make the case that the only companies who should be allowed to offer Wi-Fi are incumbent telcos.

While it's likely that this battle will continue for quite some time, both sides would be better served realizing that each side has some merits to its arguments. Local governments recognize that Wi-Fi helps with urban renewal and other projects to encourage job growth and tourism. Incumbents should also realize that local governments have access to the best property to offer faster wireless broadband services. Letting local governments build wireless networks, but then letting service providers make use of those networks to offer services is a compromise that makes sense for everyone. Communities get their wireless access while broadband providers get ready-built networks using the best locations to position wireless radios. Otherwise, everyone gets bogged down in silly debates over whether or not a city can provide local information to travelers with Wi-Fi enabled devices.