January 06, 2005

Wired in Saint Paul

The Saint Paul City Council is pondering setting up some sort of city-wide high-speed internet access.

This being Saint Paul, naturally, they're talking big-government solutions:

"We don't know what the end result will be, but we want to do everything possible to make the Internet affordable and available," said [Council member Dave] Thune, who introduced the resolution. "Everything is on the table, from city ownership of a service to a nonprofit owning it."
The city? Or a non-profit beholden to the same people who control the city? "You can have any color you like, as long as it's black...OR gray!"

Laura Billings has a response to the idea in today's PiPress.

...Is it really so bad living in the dark?

No, no, I'm not a Luddite. I ordered half of my Christmas presents on eBay. I'm absolutely addicted to iTunes. And I can certainly see why civic leaders worry about the so-called "digital divide" when half of all families with incomes above $75,000 have broadband, and half of families with incomes below $30,000 don't have so much as a 56k modem.

Even so, when I hear citywide-wireless proponents across the country talking about technology serving as a means for greater civic engagement, I have to wonder if the sort of community involvement spawned by the Internet is actually what they're after.

Consider, for instance, the e-mail I got from a reader who, in a surge of such civic engagement and outrage about what he considered to be a "slam" on the Peppermint Patty statue in Rice Park, wrote to me to tell me the tremendous error of my ways.

She goes on to tell the sort of story familiar to anyone who has any sort of public profile; a nutbar sends a bunch of increasingly abusive emails...
Perhaps the City Council members most in favor of widespread wireless do not get the sort of e-mail we do at the newspaper. But when everyone has access, believe me, they will. They might want to be more careful what they wish for.
Well, that's been a big theme this past year, hasn't it - the power of people on the internet to afflict the comfortable (in terms of status and media and political privilege, in this case) and comfort the afflicted? Ms. Billings' husband, the ever-less-defensible Nick Coleman, is the new Buggywhip, the imperial columnist, accountable to nobody - who's suddenly accountable to everyone.

Think that wouldn't do the Saint Paul City Council [motto: We're not quite as nuts as Minneapolis] a lot of good?

Billings shares her husband's faith in the commoner, by the way:

I love the notion that wider wireless access might inspire St. Paulites to solve their family Scrabble squabbles by going online to the Oxford English Dictionary. But I've visited the public library enough to know what people tend to use easy Internet access for - looking at porn. It would certainly be more convenient to look at porn at an Internet hot spot near a public school, rec center or government building, but I'm not sure that's really progress.
Those peasants and their urges.

But the real question is this; should the government get into the ISP business?

Leave aside the Big Brother aspects of the question (although in Saint Paul, one should never leave them aside for long; Nick Coleman's brother Chris is a front-runner for the Mayor's office next election); do you want your internet services run by the same people (and means) that run the Violations Bureau? Or run the same way MPR or Ramsey Action Program are run? Or one of those city-granted franchise monopolies that make cable service such a great deal?

People compare the internet to roads, by way of saying "Of COURSE the government has a role in building public goods". But leave aside the debate over whether roads and transit might be better run by private ventures; the internet, and private internet services, doesn't require the same mobilization of capital that it takes to plant billions of tons of concrete across the landscape. It's just wires, and private companies do wires just fine, and don't cost the taxpayers anything.

City internet is a dumb idea.

UPDATE: Flash at Centrisity agrees:

When I first read about the idea, I asked myself; "Self, do we have an Internet access problem in St. Paul that needs to be resolved through public intervention. Is the market not supporting the demand?"

The answer to both questions was NO! Which leads me to the next question. Did the St. Paul City Council bother asking themselves those two questions?

That's called "broad agreement".

By the way - please visit his blog in droves. After his crack yesterday, I think a "mitchalanche" would be fun. In all seriousness, it's one of the most improved blogs of the past year, and I mean that in a good way.

Posted by Mitch at January 6, 2005 06:42 AM | TrackBack

Well, you know what would be nice?

It would be VERY nice if the city would allow private groups to install and maintain their own networking equipment.

There is a certain amount of Vital Stuff the city could (and probably would likely NEED) to provide, including things like electricity and physical space in a wiring closet.

But actually owning and operating an ISP? No thanks.

Incidentally, when I lived in California, I was indeed grateful for my local municipally owned electricity company -- the rates (in Northern CA's vastly wrong and broken) electricity market were at least 33% lower than the monopoly shareholder owned utility.

So there are niches where it makes sense to me as a customer.

Posted by: Mark at January 6, 2005 11:51 AM

Don't know how this got replied to the other post, but The only way they will be able to afford that is to create yet another new fee (which is NOT a tax-right), just like they did with the sidewalks and the streetlights. It wasn't enough for the schools to raise a levy for internet access, now every prostitute and drug dealer needs to get free access as well. Then groups will start to sue the city because they don't have a computer; therefore they can't take advantage of the "services" from the city. No doubt that the city will eventually have to buy computers for all its citizens as well, because what good is internet access without a computer. MARK MY WORDS.....

Posted by: ThaLeena at January 6, 2005 06:19 PM

Follow the money. The cities dream of getting a piece of the action, like municipal liquor. The vendors dream of an easy sale to politicos who understand neither the business nor the technology involved.

The cities can rent space on water towers etc just like cell phones, either for cash or bandwidth. But no way should any level of government be involved in the actual service, the same governments who runs the DMV, transit, the IRS, and the Post Office.

Posted by: R-Five at January 6, 2005 10:29 PM