November 6, 2013
When residents hear that L.A. leaders are discussing a bright new
plan to update the city’s infrastructure, many might think: Great,
they’re finally going to fix the streets.
But no. The idea
advanced this week by the City Council is to develop free, citywide
Wi-Fi service. It’s a project to expand access to the information
superhighway, not to fill the potholes on Main Street. It’s about trying
to give Angelenos 21st-century technology when many are still waiting
for late-20th-century roads.
To be sure, Wi-Fi for everyone is a
good thought, which is why dozens of U.S. cities have undertaken some
version of such a program. It’s just that this ambitious and potentially
costly plan shouldn’t be Los Angeles’ first priority right now.
Before L.A. sets out to become the largest city in the nation to
provide free wireless Internet access to everyone, people should be
asking lots of questions. And officials should be answering them.
shouldn’t be hard to think of questions about what could go wrong, not
amid the unanticipated problems with can’t-miss government-ordered
technology rollouts like the Obamacare website and the L.A. schools’
Tuesday, the City Council voted 13-0 in favor of
a motion by Councilman Bob Blumenfield to draft a request for proposals
from companies for developing Wi-Fi service citywide. This would start a
The price tag would be an estimated $50 million to $100 million
for the basics, going up to $3 billion to $5 billion for the fiber
network needed to bring gigabit — really fast — Internet service to
everyone. That’s more expensive than the $38 million to $46 million
Wi-Fi plan L.A. officials discussed but abandoned in 2009 because of the
But will the private sector be for or against this plan?
Philadelphia lost a lawsuit filed by Verizon, which contended that
city’s free Wi-Fi would step on its business.
Would it be the boon
to creativity and the economy that its boosters envision? How good
would citywide Wi-Fi be compared to the Internet service most people
have at home or in the office? How many people would really benefit from
public Wi-Fi? (As proponents of LAUSD’s plan to give iPads to all K-12
students note, you have to possess the electronic equipment before you
can take advantage of the Internet.)
These are all questions that should be answered as L.A. officials
decide where free public Wi-Fi fits on City Hall’s priority list.
Save Our Streets initiative pushed by Councilmen Mitch Englander and
Joe Buscaino, calling for a $3 billion bond to complete a 60-year
backlog of street repairs in 10 years, is awaiting council approval to
put it on the November 2014 city ballot. Department reports are being
gathered in the meantime.
It was good to hear Englander, who voted
for the Wi-Fi plan, say Wednesday he would oppose spending taxpayer
money on Wi-Fi, and that street repair and the restoration of some city
services are “without question our first priority.”
That’s a promise all city officials should live up to.