St. Cloud Muni System Saved by Citizen Users — “Waste” or “Success.”

As reported by Esme Vos at Munireless, the St. Cloud Muniwireless system has been granted a reprieve. In an effort to lower municipal costs to avoid raising taxes, the town council voted on September 30 to shut down the wireless network. At a city council meeting two days later, a crowd of local residents showed up to protest the decision, resulting in a 120-day extension to reexamine the question.

St. Cloud’s political fight over its municipal wireless network cuts to the heart of one of the core debates in the national broadband plan. Do we regard connectivity as a service on the same level as schools, sewage, and public transportation — where we expect the city to subsidize the service because it provides needed social benefits? Or do we insist that we only provide broadband where it can pay for itself on a going forward basis (after some initial stimulus money to get the network built and get the ball rolling)? There is no doubt that for a city of 30,000, a fair number of people use the St. Cloud wireless network (at least 8500 unique connections/month) and enough regard it as sufficiently important to lobby their city council to keep the network in the face of a financial shortfall. At the same time, no one argues with the fact that the network costs the city $30K/month and seems likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

So how do we measure waste or success? I’ve argued on more than one occasion that we should look on these networks as the equivalent of a public transportation system. They don’t compete with cabs or car sales despite the fact that many people rely on them to avoid driving. In fact, cabs and auto dealers benefit because public transportation systems because they keep traffic manageable. And, as the iPhone and other smartphones continue to increase the demand for spectrum for data traffic, licensed wireless operators like AT&T are finding it beneficial to encourage customers to use wifi hotspots and offload the traffic whereas previously carriers resisted letting customers use wifi at all.

We have until February to debate how we want to incorporate this into our national broadband plan. Broadband as utility — where we encourage local governments to offer services like St. Cloud for the positive externalities for everyone even if it requires continuing subsidy? Or does it only make sense to have municipal broadband where it can pay for itself? With the final decision on St. Cloud now due in January 2010 — a month before the National Broadband Plan — it will be very interesting to see what the citizens of St. Cloud and their local government decide.

Stay tuned . . . .

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