Warchalk-Proofing Redmond

I received an invitation to an MSR-sponsored presentation about "Mesh Networking" today. The summary includes, “Community mesh networking is disruptive to the current residential broadband Internet access paradigm, which relies on cable and DSL being deployed in individual homes. It allows free flow of information without any moderation or selective rate control. Compared to existing systems that are centrally managed by ISPs, mesh networking is organic, where every participant contributes network resources and cooperates to form a self-organizing, self-managing network.“


This reminds me of Aspen, CO, among others, where Wi-Fi service is ostenisbly available for “free” throughout the city. Imagine that. No more warchalking. It also reminds me of Tacoma, WA, where the city itself has installed and manages a high speed internet and television cable service for all city residents.


In my role as planning commissioner for the City of Redmond, I've been thinking about proposing some sorts of policies, primarily for the Utilties chapter of the Comprehensive Plan but also in the Land Use chapter, that might someday lead the city to:

  • provide localized, free (possibly advertising-supported) wireless internet hotspots at transit centers, town squares, libraries, and other public spaces, especially in the two urban centers: Downtown and Overlake OR

  • provide ubiquitous, high speed Wi-Fi ala Long Beach inside city limits and sell network keys to consumers for a reasonable monthly or per-megabyte rate or provide it free of charge with advertising for residents who cannot afford to pay for access.

For many citizens, the idea of free or subsidized Wi-Fi is bound to sound a little radical.  My response is simple: Imagine having to *pay* to listen to radio broadcasts or to watch television with an antenna.  Can it really be that simple? Or am I just dreaming out loud?


What do you think?  Should the Public Utilities element of Redmond's Comprehensive Plan specifically call out invisible spectrum as a public utility that the city should, in the absense of higher authority, be regulated for the benefit of all residents?  Or should we allow ad hoc development of our invisible spectrum?


Also, is it completely insane of me to propose that the City of Redmond seek to provide unregulated, unpaid access to a munincipal wireless network from certain public facilities throughout the city?  If so, why?


Here are a few existing munincipal Wi-Fi projects in US cities and towns: Long Beach, Cleveland, Colorado Springs, Salem, MA, Los Gatos,...and honorable mention to the National Mall, in Washington, DC.



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Comments (13)

  1. Mark says:

    Cafenet (http://www.cafenet.co.nz)here in Wellington, NZ has a very good model for local free wireless, with a prepaid option for accessing external resources.

  2. BillT says:

    On the first bullet: Yes. Free WI-FI would be good for the people.

    On bullet two: Maybe. I prefer minimal government, and there are competition issues. On the other hand, complete coverage Wi-Fi is cool. Perhaps Redmond could work out a business/goverment partnership to make the end-result happen. Or perhaps, Redmond could assist in finding funding (not through any citizen taxes) for a telecom provider to do the project. (But I don’t think granting local monopolies is a good idea either.)

    FYI: You should be aware of this ruling. I’m not sure how it would affect your actions.

    It is my understanding that there was a recent federal ruling (I don’t recall the agency or court), which would permit individual states to regulate whether municipalities could provide various telecomm services. (I wish I had a better reference for you.)

    You may face some opposition from telecom companies. http://www.spiegelmcd.com/pubs/jnh_tensions.htm#authority

  3. Scott says:


    Do you think radio and TV would still be free if they provided two way communication? Why aren’t telephone land lines free?

  4. Gavin Greig says:

    Your idea sounds attractive, but here in the UK we do pay to watch television with an antenna, so it’s not that unimaginable.

    That money provides the funding for the BBC, and although many people grumble about it, I think it’s worth it.

    Scott’s "two-way" point is a key one. Enforcement of the TV licence fee in the UK can work because most TVs aren’t as mobile as, say, laptops. There used to be a radio licence fee (decades ago) but it went when radios became portable. Laptops are as portable, but they’re not passive listeners. The two-way nature of networking provides an opportunity for charging and, of course, enforcement, that doesn’t exist with radio.

    Good luck with the free wireless idea though! Anything that makes internet communication easy for the general public seems like a good idea to me.

  5. Eric says:

    King County Library System (which services Redmond) seems to have a pretty nice wi-fi system in place, I don’t know anything about what it took for them to get it up and running but I have used it on my laptop and it was helpful. Might be an interesting extension of the idea towards getting it going in the community – it might be a radical idea that "library service" doesn’t necessarily mean within the walls of a physical building anymore but on the other hand it seems like a way to do it that would cut through red tape and actually work. On the practical side of the equation they already have at least a bit of a proof of concept considering they have already set up hotspots inside of the libraries. Setting up a hotspot in locations where traditional libraries don’t exist but that large numbers of the public could benefit from seems like it would be a natural next step and correspond well with the goals of the library system.

  6. Peter Robinson says:

    Here in the US, local governments regularly operate all kinds of utilities (water, irrigation, sewer, power etc) especially in rural areas that do not have the population base to attract commercial interest.

    There are couple of issues that usually come up in these discussions, the role of government and regulation.

    1)Should government compete with private companies and provide these services, in this case a "wireless utility". Initially one could argue that government should stay out of it. Others argue that it’s the job of local government to enhance the livability of their communities – local governments could use the fact that there is "free" wireless as a way to attract people and businesses to work, play and live in their City. Just as Starbucks/McDs uses it to sell coffee/burgers to increase revenues, cities can use it attract people and businesses, increasing the economic vitality/livability of the community.

    2)Should the FCC regulate this part of the spectrum or dedicate other parts for "government use"? Some argue that the reason WiFi is so popular is precisely because it’s unregulated. At an ACCIS conference a few weeks ago a number of cities and counties in Washington state that have been early adopters of city/county wide wireless reported that they are having horrendous problems with private access points "interferring" with their signals. This is to be expected as WiFi operates in an unregulated part of the spectrum and by definition the FCC has no authority, even if it becomes a public safety issue. It’s important to note that there are other parts of the spectrum that are designated for public safety radio and future plans to allocate additional spectrum. Not sure of the details though…

    This is indeed a very timely discussion as the FCC (US) has recently announced a task force to look into broadband WiFi access( http://www.fcc.gov/sptf/ )

    Additional information on the spectrum needs for Public safety can be found at http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/06112003hearing951/print.htm

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