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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

And Gavin Newsom said, Let There be WiFi!

According to CNET, my hometown of San Francisco wants to provide free wireless internet access on a city-wide basis, an initiative being pursued by some other cities as well. Although these initiatives aim to boost local economic development and reduce municipal communication expenses, I really like a third justification that's also being offered: ensuring that families in low-income neighborhoods have equal access to the internet. I haven't read any studies on the educational and professional disadvantages facing modern families who cannot afford regular internet access, but I would imagine them to be substantial, particularly in urban internet-savvy areas like the San Francisco Bay Area. To boost this initiative at the front end, Dell and some other computer makers apparently are offering to provide free computers to poor families. A smart  move for these companies beyond the simple good-will PR it generates, I think. I'll be interested to see how well Frisco and the other cities do at achieving this seemingly admirable goal, particularly against any campaign by commercial internet providers to stop it.

Posted by Brooks Holland on August 17, 2005 at 07:52 PM in Culture | Permalink


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To enjoy the benefits of the free wireless service, you will need (a) a personal computer at home (which most poor families don’t have); (b) wireless capability on that computer (which most cheap desktops don’t have); (c) basic knowledge of how to use a computer and the Internet (which most poor people don’t have). So, the city is spending its scarce resources to provide a service that will mostly benefit the upper-middle-class crowd.

If the idea were really to reduce the digital divide, it would have been a lot cheaper to just provide a free wired Internet connection to every poor family who wants one. This approach would probably save enough money to *buy* a computer for every poor family who wants one. Or, better yet, to buy books, tutoring, private school tuition, food, and clothing for poor families who need them a lot more than they will ever need a wireless Internet service.

Nothing is wrong with catering to yuppies who vote and pay most of the taxes – so long as the city honestly admits who the real beneficiaries of this wealth transfer scheme are.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Aug 17, 2005 10:54:20 PM

What a great idea. My wife (an attorney) and I are tired of paying Verizon $40/month for wi-fi (they require a phone line, and charge for that, thus the high rate). Now, if we just move to SF, we can ditch the lan line (we only use cellies, anyway) and spend the $40 at Starbucks.

What a great way to help people like us - who, after all, really need it. Thinking back, when I was really poor (my entire childhood), having decent clothing would have been nice, since it wasn't fun being mocked for wearing pants with holes in them. But hey, the future Mike's of the world will have it good. Sure, their clothing might suck, but they can login. Hey, maybe they'll even start a blog.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 18, 2005 2:06:15 AM

Wow, such cynicism directed at SF! What happened to the good ole’ days when my SF was embraced for its genuine, if occasionally naïve, idealism??? Have Starbucks and the dot.com-boom kids tainted the town that much?

Posted by: Brooks | Aug 18, 2005 11:52:25 AM


I was a little snarky, and I'm sorry about that. But naive idealism usually leads to an inefficient allocation of resources. If the government wants to help the poor, then they should, well, help the poor. Installing wifi, which I imagine will be very expensive, isn't going to do it. Aren't there more helpful ways to spend that money?

Indeed, this wifi idea reminded me why I hate paying taxes. Instead of having more money to give to charities, limited dollars pay for totally unhelpful solutions to major problems. Wifi is welfare for the near-rich, or at least, the credit-card carrying hipsters.

This naive idealism, applied to world affairs, leads to some sad results. For example, a rational actor wanting to help the poor in third-world countries, would help install infrastructure to ensure clean water. But instead of talking about the need for clean water, the naive idealists bark that corporations violate workers' rights. My suspicion is that the workers think their rights are doing fine, but they'd sure like to have clean weater.

Thus, I tend to think naive idealism generally leads perverse results. Government programs for the poor should be run like a corporation (actually, Catholic Charities does a very good job). How many poor people does this program serve? How well is this program serving them? What are the goals of this program? Has the program met its goals?

If we asked these questions of wifi for all, we'd see it will not help the poor. But, hey, so much government spending is a pretext for something else.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 18, 2005 2:23:56 PM

I am responding somewhat randomly to the comments posted here, so apologies in advance if my thoughts seem not to cohere.

"Low(er) income" does not necessarily mean "poor". Wifi could provide benefits to struggling lower income people, including working students who don't always have access to their schools for computer accesss, as well as many others for whom $40 is a lot of money (retirees also come to mind). Such benefits can be important, but yet not limited to providing clothes, shelter, and other "essentials". In this sense, computer access is not completely different than "tutoring" or "books".

Supporting computer literacy - like promoting literacy through the support of public libraries - is of course not incompatible with helping poor people fulfill basic needs. And there is nothing obviously wrong with helping lower middle class and middle class people, even if those benefits don't clearly help poor people too. Again, libraries are used by diverse patrons. Only if it disproportionately helped middle and upper middle class (and above!) people would I see a concern. And that case hasn't been made.

Moreover, have you seen some of the computer users at your local public library? They look as if they don't have a whole lot of means; but somehow they ARE computer literate. I don't know that I would want each of them to get a free computer - that might be even too magnanimous for me - but I certainly feel the computer access offers them a real resource. Sadly, though, they are hugely underserved by urban libraries. Why not offer Wifi, if it allows more computers to be set up (perhaps at cheap coffee shops, train stations, etc.) to relieve the pressure of overuse at local libraries?

Mike, I understand what you are saying, and you definitely have a cogent point when you say that international aid can get bolloxed by conflicting and poorly prioritized concerns. But really, we aren't talking about "feeding the poor" versus "coddling the yuppies", are we? We do lots of things that can end up offering better payoffs to wealthier folks than poorer ones, simply due to barriers to entry (highways: need to buy a car; good public schools: need to live in a high tax district). I don't think that means the services provided should be scrapped, do you? Or am I misunderstanding what you're saying?

I'd like to see the costs that really would be incurred if Wifi were set up city wide, especially if there were some private "subsidization" by industry (cable, computer, telephony). I'd also like to see support systems that would complement a Wifi plan, such as tutoring for new computer users, access to computer sites (not just at the poor, overburdened public libraries), and tie-ins to local public schools that served lower income families and kids. Does that sound unrealistic? Probably. But I'd like to see a cost/benefit breakdown before dismissing it out of hand.

Posted by: savitri | Aug 19, 2005 1:38:59 AM

Those who trumpet the inefficiencies of this policy should do some research. In those communities where municipal wi-fi has either been conceptualized or realized as a necessary tool for low-income youth, the implementation has resulted in non-profits offering cyber cafes in neighborhoods which would have never seen such a valuable resource but for the "public" access.

To visualize the program as "city" kids with 17-in. PowerBooks is a mistake. Especially considering that those communities most interested in municipal wi-fi are not urban but rather rural. A very real problem facing residents in rural communities is a lack of hi-speed Internet (even the overpriced variety). Verizon has no motivation to install the wired-network infrastructure for a low-population-density area; a municipality that realizes the need to provide its community (i.e. youth) with the necessary tools to compete in the job market can create, manage, and administer the service where otherwise the service would not exist. And, by the way, it would not be cheaper to provide free wired Internet connection to every "poor family."

Although, based on the tone/nature of the comments, some participants likely have their website blocked, PBS's program "NOW" has a section of their website dedicated to (both sides of) the topic.

I would close by saying that -- while I agree with Kate that there are many elements of poverty which demand our attention -- I could not disagree more that the fact (for purposes of this comment only) "poor people" don't have "basic knowledge of how to use a computer and the Internet" or "a personal computer at home" should deter us from supporting municipal wi-fi. In fact, it should encourage us to eliminate the obstacle of access to hi-speed Internet. If anyone thinks that citizens don't have "a personal computer at home" because they don't want one or don't think that access to a computer is an important contributing factor to achievement of success...look no further than the stampede in Richmond, Va. for a few used iBooks.

Posted by: C | Aug 19, 2005 2:19:37 PM

Interesting development on my diaryland blog - I had regular searches through Google hit several times a day. Since I wrote up a critique of Gavin Newsom's defense of SERIAL INEBRIATES, wherein he discloses that he will throw ever more money at them, instead of arresting the troublemakers... well, since then,in this free, free, free world of WIFI, no one is finding my website anymore. I suppose THAT is what his army of assistants are really doing - blocking all negative reviews of his performance in our city. Try searching under GAVIN NEWSOM DIARYLAND and see that it does not come up, whereas, under GAVIN NEWSOM FRWHISKEY, it does.

Life is interesting. Life online is even more interesting...bizarre and creepy, insidiously nasty even! Well, I guess it keeps them "employed", ha ha. Then they won't have to be street bums...

Posted by: Mary | Jan 11, 2007 6:04:50 PM

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