03 August 2005

WiMax - Urban Connectivity as a Public Good

At last week's roundtable on wireless marketing, I made the comment that the "elephant" in the wireless room is the emerging technology known as WiMax that enables an urban area for wireless ethernet communication at broadband speeds. Whereas the current cellular technology is expensive and cumbersome for Internet access - SMS seems to be the dominating data application - and 3G has a "Land of Oz" quality to it, necessitating expensively auctioned spectrum licensing and an enormous investment in new infrastructure, WiMax seems to be a most appropriate alternative. It is appropriate because it is economical and is easily implemented among a wide variety of devices. It is appropriate because it increases the availability of connectivity for all citizens in heavily populated urban areas. It is appropriate because it can be afforded as a public infrastructure project that can be mounted as a public good, to provide access to those in our urban areas who have traditionally been excluded from the emerging conversation that is ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.

Thomas Friedman comments on the importance of publicly-funded WiMax as part of the urban infrastructure today in the New York Times (reg. required, or use BugMeNot), and David Weinberger commented on it the other day. While everyone acknowledges that a level of government providing such access as part of the public infrastructure might play havoc with the so-called free market economy (Weinberger argues that it actually does not), it certainly plays havoc with the business models of incumbant cellular companies and ISPs. But what else is new?

A business model founded in a prior age of technology is not sacrosanct. And, throughout history, all of our infrastructure was originally supported by public funds in one way or another. If, eventually, certain aspects of public infrastructure are privatized for reasons of efficient ongoing operation, that becomes a matter of public policy debate at the time. However "efficient" the market may be at running a business, some services can legitimately be deemed sufficiently important to the public good and general welfare of the population that the decision to create an appropriate infrastructure is a legitimately Good Act of public policy.

In Toronto, I have had informal conversations with representatives from both Bell (Sympatico) and Rogers, the two major broadband ISPs in this geography. My advice to either or both of them is to quickly enter a partnership with the city to develop a public WiMax infrastructure covering all of Toronto. While this may cannibalize a small amount of their extant ISP access and cellular business, history has demonstrated time and again that those businesses which resist technological advancement in favour of a fundamentally obsolescent business model, lose. Period.

(Originally seen at JOHO the Blog)

Update (4 August 2005): Wake up Bell! Wake up Rogers! Wake up Telus! Vonage is already doing this in New Jersey! What's "this?" "This" is delivering Voice over IP via WiMax, which in an urban area looks a whole heckuva lot like 1x digital cellular - in other words, voice, text and web access via a mobile device at many times the speed, at a fraction of the cost for the average user.
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Robert said...

I was happy to see Philly push for public wifi. The disappointing thing is that Governor Rendell, one of those traditional politicians that Rasiej referred to, supported legislation to prevent other cities in our state from following. Even so, there has been some talk in my city's mayoral campaign about looking into this.

The point that Friedman makes that I find interesting is this:

"In U.S. politics, the party that most quickly absorbs the latest technology often dominates."

I had the opportunity to talk to joe Trippi about who will be more likely to use new media more effectively. He thinks that there is nothing inherent in these media (internet, blogs, meet up, etc.) or in either party that could lead one to make such a judgment. Showing my philosophical bias, in politics and media, I disagree.

Trippi himself said that the Republicans are much more top to bottom in their political structure and Democrats are much more comfortable with letting "the ground troops" do their own thing. I believe that, much like the telecom corporations that oppose public wifi, the Republicans/conservatives will either have to make a drastic change in their structure and culture or lose political ground to Democrats/liberals who will instinctively have a better understanding of how to use new media from a logistical viewpoint in a campaign and will be more comfortable with the more libertarian world that is going to be created by these things.

Mark Federman said...

I agree with Trippi that there is nothing inherent in the technologies themselves that would tend to make them more effectively used by either party. On the other hand, there is something about the cultures of the two U.S. political parties that would tend to have them favour one over another. Republicans tend to be hotter, while Democrats tend to be cooler. (See this post for a quick comparison chart of the characteristic effects of hot and cool media.)

This explains why John Fitzgerald Kennedy's and Lyndon Baines Johnson's party was so effective with television in the 1960s (when it was cool), and why Bush-the-Elder's and Bush-the-Younger's (especially the-Younger) party are so effective with television today (now that it has hotted up). Part of the problem in reach and engagement in U.S. politics is that the population at large is relatively unconnected, especially among the voting generation.

Still, the last election was tremendously instructive with respect to the power of connectivity to reach previously "unreachable" demographics, and create involvement, which, of course, is the cornerstone to any democracy.