(photo credit: Charleston’s TheDigital)
If you pull someone off a California street and ask them what they believe infrastructure is, chances are they will go straight for roads and bridges. But while roads and bridges are critical elements of our infrastructure, less often spoken about — but equally important — is broadband Internet access.
It was with this Internet-as-infrastructure idea in mind that Los Angeles City Council member Bob Blumenfield last week introduced a motion for L.A. to install a free, citywide municipal Wi-Fi system.
“It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time,” Blumenfield said. “I’ve been a big proponent of infrastructure, and this is every bit as much a part of infrastructure as roads, bridges, and highways; it’s just digital. Just as having a network of roads can move goods back and forth, having a virtual road free and clear and having folks able to get on and off those ramps could be a tremendous boost for our economy.”
Those that aren’t in the know may think free, city-provided Internet is a revolutionary thing, but the truth is that Los Angeles is already behind other major California cities in implementing it. The City of Riverside has offered free Internet since 2007, and San Jose brought its “Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi” to downtown in March of this year.
“L.A. should have been on the cutting edge of this,” Blumenfield said. “We’ve already lost that position, and now we’re trying to get in line for it.”
Councilmember Mike Bonin minced no words when referring to L.A.’s innovation hibernation on the Wi-Fi issue. “It’s ridiculous that the city of Los Angeles does not have Wi-Fi,” he said. “It’s really sort of heartbreaking that people who live in the 21st century world have to go back in time when they come to city hall.”
But what now? Free Wi-Fi is a popular proposition, but equipping Los Angeles — a city that defines urban sprawl — with the equipment needed is virtually guaranteed to be costly. Considering how cash-strapped the local and state governments are, some are promoting the idea of a public-private partnership, an idea both Blumenfield and Bonin are enthusiastic about.
That’s not to say a public-private partnership would be a silver bullet for L.A.’s digital infrastructure woes. “Public-private partnerships always have public-private costs,” said Linda Fowells, executive vice president of Community Partners and co-author of the 2008 report Wired for Wireless. “It depends on the private entities. From an infrastructure standpoint, it may make sense for them to be publicly owned and supported like our other infrastructure.” In addition to Community Partners, the report was also funded by the California Community Technology Policy Group, the Broadband Institute of California, and the California Emerging Technology Fund.
Funding aside, the concept of free wireless access isn’t just about convenience; it’s about bridging a growing digital divide, something that would make a big impact on California’s economy.
“A lot of goods and services are less expensive online, and opportunities are more available online,” Fowells said. “People don’t really comment on the digital divide anymore, but it creates a divide between those that can afford Wi-Fi and those that can’t.” Those that can afford Wi-Fi have access to jobs and the ability to complete applications online, while those that can’t are out of luck.
Cities, counties and the state will need to find ways to pay for the vital underpinnings of the California economy: its infrastructure. That includes broadband access for more people so that they can participate in the recovery, whether they’re located in urban or rural areas. How something like free municipal Wi-Fi and other important pieces of our infrastructure get funded and prioritized are at the core of the California Economic Summit’s Infrastructure Action Team. Finding the best way to pay for closing the digital divide will be important to the Los Angeles and California economies, and bridging that gap would be an instant catalyst for a more vibrant, innovative economy.