This came through the telecom-cities listserv by Anthony Townsend. He very succinctly summarizes the issues with municipal wireless networks. The quote below I find particularly interesting:
"Discussions about the design of today's municipal wireless networking efforts have not yet addressed the way community-created content can be solicited and integrated in the splash pages and portal sites where wireless users are greeted when they connect. We do know that cities such as Long Beach, California and business improvement districts in New York City have experimented with local content. However, these past experiments did not leverage the tools we possess today to rethink how we might provide a community bulletin board as an integral part of the municipal wireless experience. The directions of current municipal projects instead are unwittingly viewing the wireless network as a means to escape local communities, and as a one-way street for advertisers to subsidize the network's operating costs."
This got me thinking about the previous (and ongoing) era of information distribution that fell victim to the sole purview of advertisers - billboards. Travelling through parts of South Philadelphia you are often confronted with traditional billboards - both legal and illegal - that could be used, even part-time for local content. The result, however, has been missed opportunities that are now seen as 'urban blight' by communities rather than another tool to promote awareness and pride of local activities.
It would be interesting to catlogue all of the ways community-based content and information could be distributed if not for the sole use of for-profit advertising. As an information network, cities could advocate for a greater level of control (both of billboards and wireless infrastructure) to enhance community initiatives. I know, I know, legal issues, the right to free speech and lost revenue are thorny topics that upends many of these discussions, but the positive benefits could be enormous. Harder issues have been tackled by committed cities in the past.
Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.