The dark side of muni-WiFi

At times we should look a gift horse in the mouth. There is a rush of municipalities across the U.S. and Europe looking to develop free or low-cost WiFi zones. The goal is to provide the residents of these cities with always-on, high-speed Internet access. Leaders of cities say that creating these city-wide WiFi zones is not only vital for economic development and public safety, but they help insure that the digital divide between rich and poor is eliminated, or at least narrowed. Americans who now cannot afford digital communications on their own would be able the join the Internet revolution.

These benefits notwithstanding, critics charge that there is no such thing as a free digital lunch. They say that the proliferation of muni-WiFi helps spur the growth of a mobile marketing ecosystem, an emerging field of electronic commerce which is expected to generate huge revenues for Google, Microsoft, AT&T, and other large companies. City residents will find themselves surrounded by a ubiquitous online environment which will follow them with ads and information dovetailed to their interests and their geographic location. Unless municipal leaders object, these critics say, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their Web searches, email messages and other online activities as they are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy says that instead of creating yet another e-commerce stomping ground, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities should understand that real alternatives do exist to the corporate model of municipal-WiFi being promoted by Google and its cohorts. It is possible to develop community networks that reflect the right to personal privacy, and the cost of building such networks can be very low. There are already successful publicly supported models. St. Cloud, FL, a city of 30,000, has built a free WiFi service for its residents as an important public service. The city has been able to build and operate the network, reduce its telecommunications costs and generate new economic opportunities.

For more on muni-WiFi and marketing ecosystem:
- see Jeff Chester's Media Alliance analysis
For more on Google's plans for ads-supported muni-WiFi:
- see this September 2005 CNN analysis 

PLUS: Google is seeking a patent for WiFi hotspot ads. The patent pertains to a method by which an end user using an AP would be served advertisements based on geographic location, behavioral profile, vertical market and more. Report

ALSO: In five years, most major metros and suburbs will have ubiquitous WiFi based broadband coverage, says Chuck Haas, the co-founder and CEO of MetroFi, a Mountain View, CA-based start-up rolling out metro wireless networks. He says most metros and suburban areas in the U.S. will be WiFi hotzones by end of the decade. Article

FINALLY: Three Google employees filed patent applications related to how the company's search engine displays advertisements on wireless devices. The company is moving aggressively into muni-WiFi, and the patents in question deal with introducing advertising in order to lower or completely eliminate the cost of wireless access. Specifically, the patents refer to the cost differences between what providers ask and what customers are willing to pay, as well as to the development of a dynamic appearance modification of the browser so that it reflects the brand associated with the wireless AP provider. Note that Google says it has no specific plans for actually using the technology, and that the patents were filed to protect the ideas of the three employees who developed the technology. Report

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