Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Micah Sifry has written a nice piece about why wifi and cheap broadband is an essential enabler and more important than direct aid for communities which need help. He references various examples and source. I completely agree. I remember speaking to a UN diplomat who said that the Internet has changed the face of global policy making. He told us that the Anti-Personal Land-mine Treaty would not have happened if it weren't for email and the ability for NGOs to get information, organize and pressure governments and the UN using the Internet. I believe that at every level, it is essential to empower individuals and communities with a voice and the Internet is in a position to enable people for the first time at a reasonable cost. It is about global voices.

I believe that it is easy enough to run a basic Wifi, Internet and Voice over IP network that in many cases municipal governments can run them. I realize this hurts competition and this is what Verizon argued when they tried to stop Philadelphia for setting up their own Wifi network, but I think it would be better than what we have now. In many places broadband is controlled by organizations that are effectively monopolies anyway. See for example the new ruling in the US that cable companies don't have to allow others to provide access through their network. Would you rather have the network run by a monopoly that is controlled by a bunch of greedy shareholders or a local government that the people at least have some control over?

People will argue that allowing local governments to operate networks will stifle innovation because of lack of competition. I think that the benefit is worth the cost of providing cheaper and more universal access. The network is becoming less and less a "service" and more and more a "thing". You can buy a bunch of routers and hook them together and you have a pretty good network. You do need maintenance, but you don't need some huge company with a bunch of bell-heads running the thing. Simple access is more like a road than a full-service hotel. It just has to be cheap and work.

I agree that this isn't for all municipal governments, but I think the central governments of the world should try very hard not to give in to the pressure of the telco lobbies and stifle the attempts of municipal governments to provide network services including voice. I also believe that non-profits and NGOs can play a huge role in helping provide access in addition to municipal governments as well as helping municipal governments set up such networks.


this would drastically increase competition in smaller municipalities because there is no competition there as it stands. if companies really are that much better, then let them prove it and put the government out of the business of providing wifi.

If they were doing a stellar job already, then this wouldn't be an issue.

Joi, when you say "I realize this hurts competition and this is what Verizon argued when they tried to stop Philadelphia" I have to take issue with that. It is absolutely getting drawn in to the zero-sum game argument that telco's are putting forward. By framing the debate in this way, they obscure the truth of the matter which is that "broadband" in the US is anything but. It's not about stealing the wireless market from the telco industry, it's about capacity planning and partnering to ensure it develops to the overall benefit of the community.

More important, it is definitely not a zero-sum game. I agree that some cities have made a mess by getting into the retail end of this when what they really should be doing is seeding the technology and then letting the markets expand (most monopolies suck). Haven't we learned anything from Internet1? And can't we do a better job this time around?

I'm glad you brought attention to this topic, but we need to avoid the trap built into the rhetoric of either/or (public/private). I work with a county govt which is very pro-business and involved in creating a viable partnership in the broadband space. If we could get past the rhetoric and embrace a big tent approach, everyone wins. After all, the wireless trafic needs to aggregated and routed to backbones at some point(!)

BTW, Jim Baller has a great article on 10 myths about Muni Broadband:

Kevin: OK. I take that back. I meant "I realize that people will argue that it hurts competition". ;-)


you see this one on worldchanging?

ethopian's using internet to sell coffe beans.


Forget the question of competition – we should encourage collaboration to ensure the broadest possible penetration of inexpensive or free broadband, and focus on services rather than connectivity as the source of revenues. It's a matter of turning the traditional ISP model, which charged for connectivity and offered services for free, around.

Cable companies and incumbent telcos do realize that services are where it's at, but they want to own the networks so that they can control access to services and distribution channels for digital media.

I am glad to see this topic discussed as I am excited to see so many others fighting to help alleviate the digital divide. Please consider joining our group, PC4peace, which has a branch in Kyoto, Tokyo and a new one opening in Sendai, Japan with future plans for Long Beach California and elsewhere. We do not claim to be experts, yet we are out there doing our part to help others bridge the digital divide.

Our basic model is to collect decommissioned computers, refurbish them and send them to UNESCO Cambodia where they are then placed in community centers, hospitals, schools and teacher training centers. We have sent over 350 computers in the past 6 months and have a goal of sending over 7000 to Cambodia alone.

I am also very interested in this discussion on WiFi municipal network as Cambodia is a prime location to set up such WiFi networks as we help those who are learning to use digital information to improve their lives.

Please contact me directly to get involved, we can use everyone's help.


I see my email address did not come up in the post.. please email me directly at and get involved in a very exciting project to help others help themselves.


Are you just arguing that companies with institutional investors are a bad thing in a sideline up there? :-)

Coming from a country where a lot of heavy industy used to be state-run, and where larger parts of the infrastructure were provided by state-owned companies up to the ninetees, I'd like to disagree. It's not always a good idea to have cities provide services that private companies could provide better. Neither do I believe that such a setup would be influencable from the outside -- let alone by just a few citizens -- nor do I believe that it would be well-run.

I think the ideal solution for wireless networks would be a nonprofit organization. People who really live for the work could donate time; people who strongly enough believe in the project could back it. Donations can be pulled in much more easily in most countries. If the city really wanted to see it take off, they could also support the org.

If it were a city getting into this, it would probably be run down in bureaucratic bullshit within five years, with more people wanting this killed, changed, organized differently and run with more forms than one can even imagine at the beginning.

Circumstances are different all over. Right now, what passes for broadband in the US isn't, and 'competition' is only between two monopoly providers- telcos and cablecos- which both are invested in keeping the investment low and the prices high while they pursue each others core business through data based offerings.
Neither is currently willing to provide true broadband, nor are they in a position to build out the existing dark fiber as well as goverments. Jurisdictions gave these companies their monopolies, and if community good is served by higher data rates at lower prices, then 'government' competition should provide that.
"government" doesn't have to be bureaucratic BS. Institutionalised private sector organizations can be just as bad- telcos and cablecos being fine examples.

To be clear, I'm not saying this makes sense in every situation. I also think "state run" is a bit broad. I think that small communities and municipalities are more likely to be directly accountable to the people. (This is not always the case.) I think that big national governments tend to be more likely to be lobbied by big monopoly interests.

My point is not that I'm against investment or that I'm anti-business, but I think that in the cases where you have huge inefficient monopolies running things that don't require much innovation, then sometimes a local government, or non-profit alternative might be more favorable for the people.

Jon -- agreed!

What gets lost when the discussion is framed around competition (and private/public red herrings) is that what we need is broadband that is OPEN. Those of us who have been around the net long enough to understand the value that brings, need to continually reframe the discussion so that quality does not get lost (tip of the hat to Joi for doing just that with ICANN and other efforts).

Hi, Joi. I was part of a group that helped keep municipal broadband legal in Texas this past legislative session. see for the record.

In practice, the vast majority of municipal wireless projects are public-private partnerships. Sometimes the city only provides access to the water tower and other city property. Often, the city contracts with private companies to do the installation and provide the service and maintenance.

The arguments about the drawbacks of a city "getting into the business" are red herrings, because that's not actually what's happening in practice.

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