There was a lot of gee-whiz media attention last year when a company called MobilePro and city officials announced a plan to turn Sacramento into one big Wi-Fi zone. (See “Sacramento goes Wi-Fi”; SN&R News; November 10, 2005.) Unfortunately, the deal that’s been mostly hammered out between city officials and the company doesn’t live up to the hype.
MobilePro wants to build a Wi-Fi network that its customers could use to access the Internet anywhere in the city. Like any Internet-service provider, the company would charge a monthly fee, starting at $19.95 a month and going up to almost $50 for an account with all the bells and whistles.
But in order to cover the city, the company wants free access to a lot of city-owned property—utility poles and public buildings—to mount the radio transmitters needed to build its network.
In exchange for all that free rent, MobilePro is offering a couple of public benefits. First, the company will donate 3,000 free high-speed accounts for public agencies and nonprofits. That’s a good thing.
We’re less enthralled with the limited “free” service being offered to regular citizens. Under the current contract terms, any individual in the city could access MobilePro’s free Internet service for up to two hours a day. But there’s a catch. The connection speed is only about 56K. That’s about the same as a dial-up connection—simply not enough bandwidth for the way people use the Internet today, let alone in five or 10 years. Worse, the free service only allows you to log on once during the day. Log on for two hours or two minutes, but that’s all you get.
It’s entirely fair for the company to offer a somewhat limited free service in order to lure people to its pay product. But we think the city can get a better deal.
The city of Sunnyvale is working with a company called MetroFi for a wireless plan that ultimately will cover the city with free, high-speed, Internet access—24-seven. There’s a catch here, too. To use the free service, you might have to put up with advertising on your browser. For the ad-free version, you have to pay $19.95 a month.
Whatever the inconveniences of an advertising-based approach, it arguably would be more useful for more people than the extremely limited, extremely slow “free” service that MobilePro is offering now.
At least one city-council member agrees. Rob Fong told SN&R last week, “My aspiration for the city is to offer free Wi-Fi to all of its citizens.” He thinks the advertising-based model should be on the table.
And there may be still other approaches to consider. But when the contract with MobilePro comes before the city council in the next few weeks, there should be a serious public discussion about what model is right for Sacramento—and whether the city is getting a good deal. Right now, we think the public right of way is worth much more than what the company is offering.