Municipal WiFi projects get real September 19, 2006Posted by Tom in Community, Economic Development, Technology, Workforce.
Great article in Government Computer News (audio, mp3) on the maturation of the municipal WiFi markets. In addition to the larger societal impact, the author mentions the economic development side of the matter:
WiFi also is seen as an economic development tool, attracting high-spending professionals to downtown areas and luring or retaining companies who want cheap network access and the benefit of a mobile workforce. Scottsburg, Ind., (pop. 6,040) spent $300,000 on a city-owned network when two significant employers threatened to leave the area.
“That was one of the more dramatic examples of how the technology helped a small city keep what little business base it had,” Settles said, adding that WiFi at convention centers might help a city compete with other convention sites.
Subsidized broadband also can boost depressed areas, which tend to have small, marginal businesses that can ill afford services. Experts say it can also spur Internet-based home businesses in pockets of unemployment. “You’re taking an inactive workforce and turning them into entrepreneurs,” Settles said.
Lots of other side issues are discussed in the article, including municipal ownership v. private ownership, the lack of thoughtful planning in the development of wireless networks, and more.
I mention it because the issues of workforce, especially brain drain, are intimately tied to the digital divide. A 21st century workforce needs a 21st century infrastructure to get their work done.
Our incumbent worker population will come to appreciate a municipal WiFi network and integrate it into their work routine; a member of the emerging workforce could use the presence (or lack thereof) of a WiFi network as a reason to locate in a city. The Scottsburg, Indiana example is an excellent one for communities of all sizes to consider (Case study from MuniWireless.com here, WiFi hardware provider Alvarion’s promotional sheet here).
Back to the article, though. I appreciate their notion that the WiFi network is all too often treated like a “flavor of the month” in municipal planning – that it is poorly thought out with no business plan for long-term sustainability. Done right, these networks should be as valid – and valuable – an infrastructure asset as roads, electricity and sewers. And they should be meaningful assets toward sustaining (building?) a world-class workforce in the communities they serve. Building business plans for this type of venture should be a piece of cake; it just has to be done.