The following is an edited and updated post of a story which originally appeared on the City Record and Boston News-Letter on 1 March 2005.
Current WiFi Efforts in Boston
Boston's Mayor, Thomas Menino, has announced the creation of a task force to study the viability of providing wireless internet access throughout the City of Boston. Currently municipal WiFi efforts are limited to Boston's libraries and some Main Streets programs. While it remains to see if this effort will complement or supercede separate efforts by City Councilor John Tobin and the Boston Foundation, the decision at the city's highest level that municipal WiFi (wireless internet access) is desirable is a positive development. Since I wrote my initial post on WiFi last March, I've seen a major increase in WiFi in my own neighborhood--as I type this I am within range of four wireless networks and when I take my laptop out of the house I've seen as many as seven or eight networks show up at various points as I walk around. Clearly demand has risen.
18th and 19th Century Infrastructure and the Public Good
Using historical analogies is a difficult business. Too often the analogy breaks down in the details because, except for very broad comparisons, history doesn’t really repeat itself and the contexts in which decisions were made are difficult to reproduce. With that disclaimer in place, I’m going to use an analogy today. Fred Wilson, in his A VC blog, raises an interesting question about whether or not WiFi (wireless high speed internet access) should be public infrastructure.
Private companies financed the bulk of capital intensive infrastructure projects in late 18th and early 19th century Boston. One notable exception was Quincy Market and the issues regarding the construction and public financing were the subject of fierce debate. Boston’s town (and city, starting in 1823) government faced opposition to taxation and had limited revenue opportunities which made capital formation difficult. Private investors filled the void by forming companies to build bridges (see this post), turnpikes, water delivery systems and other infrastructure. In turn, the companies charged tolls and fees to recoup their expenses. Many of these companies also suffered from under-capitalization and over optimistic revenue projections, but that is another story.
In order to build their projects, private companies had to obtain a corporate charter from the state. These corporate charters often included mention of the public benefits of the project because the state realized that it was granting an advantage to the private company to the detriment of the general public. One could argue that these public benefits are similar to the linkage payments present day developers in Boston pay. For example, the builders of the West Boston Bridge were required by the state to make an annual payment to Harvard College to support indigent scholars because the tolls from the ferries which the bridge replaced had helped to support Harvard.
Another example is the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal, a project in 1790s Philadelphia that was never completed. Because the canal required the taking of private property through eminent domain (an issue currently before the Supreme Court) for the canal right of way, the proponents of the canal emphasized that the canal would make water more readily available to the citizens of Philadelphia. This did not satisfy opponents of the canal who observed that despite the alleged public benefit, the shares of the canal stock were being traded publicly to the benefit of the shareholders.
While the notion of the corporation existing at the sufferance of the state (and consequently the people) has largely gone by the wayside, this system still exists today in certain industries, with the issue of licenses to television stations as one example. Along with their general programming, television stations are required to have portions of their schedule devoted to public affairs programming.
Water in Boston and WiFi Parallels
As my regular readers know, I worked on the Boston Almanac Project last year, republishing the entries for all of the Boston events and fires found in the 1838 and 1841 Boston almanacs. There is much more in the almanacs than the events and fires however, including a list of all the places where water was available to the public in Boston in 1838. These public water spots co-existed with a private entity, the Boston Aqueduct Company, which delivered water for a fee. These parallel delivery systems bring me to WiFi networks. Public wells in Boston were limited by some of the same problems affecting private (and public, for that matter) Wi-Fi hot spots. Wells dry up and hot spots disappear as companies decide the fee based structure no longer works. Well water quality declined in Boston as the population grew, likewise, as more people use hot spots, the quality of service can degrade. In addition, using a private WiFi spot leaves one at the mercy of the provider, which can track what you’re up to when you’re online. Conversely, WiFi providers are subject to unwelcome uses. Both wells and WiFi hot spots are examples of uneven distribution. Wells existed only where water was underground and paid WiFi only exists where economically feasible. Vast segments of the population have the potential to be under served. There are projects afoot which seek to replicate the public well model for WiFi here in Boston—see for example CityKi and Newbury Open.Net. While admirable, the ability to make coverage universal is likely beyond the reach of such organizations.
The illustration accompanying this essay is of a Boston Aqueduct Corporation receipt from April 1, 1828. The history of the Aqueduct Corporation can be found in Fern Nesson’s Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply so I won’t cover it here. I will add that historians generally believe that one of the first houses in Boston to have a bathroom can be found at 56-57 Beacon Street, which was built in 1819. According to the AIA Guide to Boston the construction contract required that “in the cellar there is to be a bathing room in front into which the aqueduct is to be led”. Of particular notice in the bill is the condition that the signer “shall not draw, or suffer to be drawn, any water, except for the use of his family only”. Internet providers have the same requirement today, in an effort to limit the spread of free wireless networks.
What Happens Next?
While comparisons between the public wells and private WiFi
hotspots may be interesting, the larger lesson is in the development of
the parallel delivery systems for water and the eventual absorption of
the private infrastructure companies by public (or quasi-public)
entities. The question is whether or not wireless high speed internet
access will follow the water model—ubiquitous public access provided by
a local or regional entity for a small fee—or remain something more
analogous to energy delivery or telephone service, with distribution
handled by for-profit companies, as in the case of T-Mobile’s Starbucks
Part of the answer hinges on the question of whether high speed wireless internet access will be seen as a necessity in the future. For many of us who are frequent users, the answer is obvious—a seamless system of free wireless internet access is needed. But there are also a great number of people who are casual users, or who don’t use the internet at all and this issue matters not one whit. Would these people support public investment into making WiFi available everywhere? Like A VC, I’m convinced of the benefits of widespread WiFi access to people and that the investment required for such seamless coverage is short money. But are we preaching to the converted and do local governments have the resources and the will to make this happen?
The Boston Almanac for 1838 has the following to say about the aqueduct:
"The aqueduct water is probably the most free from saline and metallic ingredients of any at present used in this city. The residuum, after evaporation from a pitcher or other vessel, gives little indication of any foreign substances except the logs through which it runs. Its taste, however, is not agreeable to all persons, nor can it be denied that some of the city wells afford water more salubrious, as well as pleasant to an unsophisticated taste, on account of the slight proportion of mineral substances contained in them. The time is believed to be not far distant, when decisive measures will be commenced, for the introduction of water soft and pure enough for all domestic and culinary purposes, and the taste of which shall be free from the objectionable qualities complained of in the greatest portion of water now used in the city."