For those who have been in this business for a while, calls for the deployment of telecommunication infrastructures as a foundation for the so-called “information society” are not new. Several cities, counties, regions have invested substantial amounts of money in deploying infrastructure that is either operated by private enterprises or by government-owned ones. Almost inevitably the early plans for e-government and information society in the late nineties were fraught with business cases for infrastructure investments.
After that, around the mid of this decade, we have seen a surge of interest for government-funded wireless infrastructures. Some cities have implemented these, either with own resources or relying on public-private partnerships. However these cities are in a minority, as the actual business case for a complete government-funded wi-fi coverage in urban areas is often far from being very clear.
Over the last year, due the economic recession, infrastructure investments have become popular again, both at the city and at the national level. What drives these calls is often a genuine desire for reaching out to parts of the population which are digitally excluded (e.g Australia) or to modernize historical icons (e.g. Venice).
There seems to be a great enthusiasm today and almost a religious fervor supporting more investments to give high speed broadband access to everybody, and very few questions about whether this has such a high priority as many think.
Case in point, the debate is very hot in Italy, where the national government apparently promised 800 million euro for broadband deployment, but such spending item did not make the cut in next year’s budget. At the same time, another debate is storming the financial capital (Milan), which is going to host the EXPO in 2015, to push for a free-for-all WiFi access. Bloggers, communities, journalists use sentences as strong as “free WiFi is a basic human right”. To those who try to show them that Internet access in the city is pretty high, the reply is that more bandwidth is needed to unleash the power of information. Incidentally Italy is only one example, but this is a common trend.
My position about this is that whether more broadband or free WiFi are required depends on what other priorities for investment are. Is such an infrastructure going to be a component of a smart city strategy, where environmental monitoring, traffic management, smart electric grid all concur to bring the city to the next level? Is there a plan to improve the quality of education or health care or to help better deal with integration issues coming from largely uncontrolled immigration? The problem is that today like 15 years ago, the assumption is that “if you build it, they will come”.
Are we sure? The way many people use high-bandwidth Internet access do today is to access entertainment (including illegal downloading of music and movies or to use VOIP services like Skype to slash their telephone costs. Browsing the Internet for textual content, as well as a fair amount of social networking (where it is not terribly video-intensive) does not require very high-bandwidth, so there is probably still a fair amount of value that people can get from existing infrastructures, if they were just encouraged or educated to do so.
I am all for ultrafast, as-free-as-possible access with significant government investment, if this comes together with serious investments in education (at all levels), healthcare (telemedicine), public safety (web-based CCVT), traffic management (more intelligent road charging schemes), environmental sustainability (web-enabled air and water quality monitoring). One way of justifying a free-for-all WiFi is to figure out how government operations could benefit from it: would a sufficient number of social workers be mobilized? would a sufficient number of teachers be able to overcome the limitations caused by insufficient or poor-quality physical infrastructures (school building, laboratories, etc)?
It is not good enough to ask governments to release the string of their purse without asking them to articulate convincing business cases about how they (and not only “the citizen”) plan to use more broadband.