Free Wi Fi For All: Let’s Put Comcast Out Of Business, America!
I might be the last American under 70 who doesn’t have a smart phone. I can’t see doubling my phone bill when I already pay Comcast $66.95 a month for home internet and access to their Wi Fi hot spots and since I can generally find wireless internet in the places I’m most likely to go in Hudson County, NJ where I live and New York City where I work. That, and most people I know who are paying for a data plan can’t always get a signal and find that their access is incredibly slow when they do get it. When I travel long distance via Greyhound or Amtrak, I find that the on board Wi Fi never works and that there’s no reliable signal to be had. The Comcasts, Time Warners and Verizons of the world are making billions in profits selling private connections to the internet, but when you need it most there never seems to be any to be found.
When driving across the United States with a GPS plugged in in the Summer of 2012, my wife and I managed to navigate our way from the East Coast to California through sparse prairie, deserts, the Navajo reservation, the Grand Canyon and a crazy night in Vegas without losing our signal once. This got me thinking: if we can have a steady GPS signal that allows a driver to navigate this broad land without losing the signal, couldn’t we just cover the entire nation in a giant Wi Fi network that would be free to access and would eliminate the messy hodgepodge of wireless hot spots and put the big companies that profit from our need to have a constant connection to the web? My wife replied, “We probably could, but all those companies that make money from providing internet service would fight it.” She is exactly right about the obstacles we would face in actually doing this, but there are examples to look to internationally to show that this idea of Wi Fi for all is possible.
A quick Google search for “free Wi Fi for all” will reveal mostly ads telling you to either pay for “free” Wi Fi or to visit your local McDonald’s to get access to their service. There is one Time story about a hoax from 2013 in which people passed around a story about the government’s plan to deliver free broadband for all Americans. Don’t lose hope, though, because there are countries that have implemented a nationwide “free Wi Fi for all” policy and that we can look toward. Let’s start with Estonia.
Estonia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, so they started out way behind the United States in terms of communication infrastructure and access to the early World Wide Web. In 2001 they opened their first public Wi Fi area, and over the next decade opened 2,440 of them at cafes, hotels, gas stations, hospitals and schools. The Estonian state supports public access to the internet, and 95 percent of the country is covered in 4G network. In 2005, Estonia became the first country anywhere to conduct local elections over the internet and voting via the web is still extremely common there.
Of course, just like they do when progressives point out how great conditions are in Scandinavia, naysayers will point out that Estonia only has 1.3 million people and a sliver of the territory that the United States has. The United States is vast, but also has 320 million people to pool their resources together to build a nationwide network of free Wi Fi zones. The people who would benefit most from this are people who live in rural, low income and otherwise underserved communities who either don’t have a cable company willing to install internet at their home or people who cannot afford to be gouged by Comcast in order to gain access.
President Obama unveiled a plan earlier this week to increase access to broadband for poor and rural communities across the country. Predictably, the comments on NBC’s article covering this were full of conservatives complaining that lazy poor people are going to get yet another government handout, this time for something that isn’t even an essential. As someone who applied to college, found every job I’ve had for the past 12 years, shops and banks and basically does everything online, I find that as we move further into the 21st century a decent internet connection is no longer a luxury. Companies like Comcast and Time Warner are monopolies which provide a spotty, slow, mediocre connection at a jacked-up price because they can. All of us would benefit by supporting Obama’s plan to expand access for poor communities and emulating Estonia’s idea of building free public Wi Fi in as many locations as possible. Any time monopolies fall or are at least subject to competition, the consumer benefits. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who was around in the 60’s when ‘the phone company’ literally was THE phone company because no one had any other choice.