Thursday, April 10, 2008

Akron to Become a Digital Nirvana?

Update: The ABJ has updated the story with additional detail – Here’s the fixed link. Spoiler alert: It’s still a boondoggle in search of a problem.


The Beacon Journal breathlessly reports:

“Akron is about to become a digital superstar.

The city will become the national headquarters of a multi-million dollar think tank that will help communities bring the online world to more people.

And at the same time, Akron will be a model of universal, free access to the World Wide Web with the creation of a wireless Internet access corridor covering about 10 square miles in the central part of the city.”

Color me skeptical. In reality, this is a high risk, low return project. The history isn’t particulary good; lots of these projects crash and burn. In addition to the technical and cost issues, there’s a lack of a compelling business case.

This stuff is never “free”. There’s equipment to buy, install, maintain, and eventually replace. There are installers, network and systems analysts, accountants, analysts, managers, customer service folks, etc. Somebody, somewhere, has to pay for all of this. None of this is cheap, and if it’s “free” to the user, that means that someone else is going to pick up the tab.

Hint: the Knight Foundation isn’t going to do this forever, and the Mayor already wants $800,000 for a five year commitment for study, design, deployment, and maintenance. The article mentions that the Knight foundation is chipping in $650,000 of the estimated cost of $2.2 million, leaving a $1,575,000 funding gap (The mayor’s request for $800,000 may reduce this; the article isn’t clear on that point).

So, either the taxpayers or the users will have to pay up to make this work.

If it’s the users, what’s the incentive to sign up for the City’s service, instead of just going to a coffee shop or the Library? Or, for that matter, just signing up with one of the many existing providers? What’s the compelling reason to switch?

If it’s the taxpayers, we’re now asking non-web users to pay for others to surf YouTube in search of Monty Python clips. Actually, this might do the same amount of good as the Ministry for Silly Walks

Both the University and the downtown hospitals already maintain networks – both wired and wireless. Their CIOs would be nuts to toss their existing infrastructure overboard on the assumption that the City’s going to pick up the tab.

It’s certainly far from clear that universal access will, in the Mayor’s words, “ will improve the quality of life, create new economic opportunities for Akron's citizens, enhance health and education, improve public safety, and drive economic development,''.

Yes, providing free access to Facebook and Myspace will turn our economic fortunes around. And make us healthier to boot!

It would certainly be interesting to see some studies that attempted to quantify the costs and benefits of this idea.

I’m not entirely convinced that the internet falls into the traditional public utility monopoly model. Between the cable, phone, and satellite providers there are quite a few options for service. No one is going to freeze to death if the city doesn’t create a monopoly internet provider.

If we’re concerned about providing free internet service to the poor, or simply to lead to economic growth, doesn’t this suggest that we should be providing free computers as well? Free web won’t do you much good if you don’t have a computer.