September 3, 2004  ·  Lessig

Philadelphia is considering adding WiFi boxes to all street lights, making the whole city WiFi alive. What I like best about this idea is how the link to street lights suggests how we should think about this resource:

(1) Is it free? No, just as street lighting costs money, it will cost money to put Wifi boxes on street lighting.

(2) Is it free. Yes, like lighted streets, and air conditioned city hall, you won’t have to pay to enjoy the resource.

(3) So it is free and not free: yes, as all great public resources are.

And as with all great public resources, this will benefit Philadelphia in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Let the city provide a platform, and watch the entrepreneurs find a million ways to make it valuable. Did anyone have any clue about all the ways the GPS would be used once Ronald Reagan set it free?

  • The Lonewacko Blog

    GPS is one-way technology and there isn’t a way to find out who’s using it. WiFi is completely different. If the government provided free WiFi they could also monitor who’s accessing what, perhaps blocking certain sites they didn’t like.

  • Mithras

    If the government provided free WiFi they could also monitor who�s accessing what, perhaps blocking certain sites they didn�t like.

    Yes, there are a thousand “buts…”.

    Prof. Lessig -
    Thanks for letting people know about this. This being Philadelphia, though, any good idea is subject to getting sidetracked. The more favorable publicity the consideration gets, the more likely it will come to pass.

  • George Williams

    This is a great idea, and I hope they go through with it.

    An important additional “Is it free?” question, however, is the one asked by the first commenter. What restrictions upon use will there be, if any? You don’t have to register to enjoy the benefit of a street light. You do have to pass through a metal detector (and perhaps show ID) to get into city hall. Which model might “free” WiFi follow? Which model *should* “free” WiFi follow?

  • ben

    i am somewhat suspicious of the whoile thing; of course it’s a great idea in theory, but i can’t believe that it won’t be exploited by the unknowing, the commericalizing, and the criminal; i’ve worked in an office of eight where the server didn’t function properly on a regular basis; how is a city of several million going to handle the networking problems? what union handles the repairs for several thousand wifi boxes? again, great idea, but i’ll believe it when i see it, and then maybe not for at least six months

  • Marcel Bartels from

    I wished we had here in Germany local governments WiFi enabling the streets. Internet is here still too expensive for many people – mostly due to the strong DT monopoly like position.

    Blocking sites is hard to imagine, as no regional government will be able to control the access lists. And even if so, people just might securely tunnel their Traffic to an internet server and get the real content from there.

    Target hosts blacklists and restricting access to some services won’t work, people will find ways to overcome it. The only way to really censor it, would be whitelists.

    Thanks a lot for your post.

  • .hack/jhimm

    Philly doesn’t need free WiFi.
    it needs to clean up the streets
    (in the literal sense)
    and invest in the crumbling infrastructure.
    free 21st century wizardy
    isn’t going to cover up
    20th century squalor.

    that being said,
    i think the concerns about municipal WiFi
    resulting in blocked sites or monitored traffic
    have a flawed assumption
    about the level of expectation of privacy.
    if you want unfetered, unmonitored access,
    go to the -privacy- of your own home,
    rather than accessing on a -public- street.

  • Nicholas Weininger

    A fundamental problem here is that WiFi, unlike street lights, is neither a nonrivalrous nor a nonexcludable resource. My standing under a streetlamp doesn’t diminish the amount of light you get from it; my using WiFi bandwidth does diminish the amount of bandwidth you’re able to use. If people really use this a lot, that limitation will become a concern; if they don’t use it a lot, why does it really make sense to provide it in the first place?

    And because WiFi is easily excludable, there’s no reason to think a private company couldn’t set up the system and run it at a profit– or indeed why several private companies couldn’t set up competing systems; you can fit more than one access point on a street light– if the demand is really there. Letting such companies use street lights as platforms would be a good idea. But it’s not clear that having the city run the network is so good.

  • KipEsquire

    Lessig conveniently leaves out the fact that Wi-Fi access is excludable, therefore it is by definition NOT a public good and there is as a result no valid justification for providing it at taxpayer expense.

    If Philadelphia were to build this hyper-wi-fi network, then how long do you think it would before its liberals demanded free, or subsized, laptops? If you have a “right” to wi-fi, then you must have a right to a laptop, no?

  • Jeffrey

    I bet they’ll be selling much more headache medicine there soon! I can already hear the pharmaceutical companies’ profits rising…

    As someone who gets migranes when around wireless devices, this is just one more place that I am glad I don’t live in, and will never visit.

  • Branko Collin

    What a load of pessimists frequent this forum! I would love to live in a city that was run by foreward thinkers. How about leaving the (undoubtedly correct, yet minor) reservations about citywide WIFI after giving support to such an interesting initiative?

    Think about what could be the advantages first.

  • Branko Collin

    Correction: it should be “leaving [...] _till_ after”

  • .hack/jhimm

    maybe we can’t think of any advantages and that’s why we only voice the concerns? public utilities are never “free”. they come from tax revenue. raising taxes is never popular, so what other government program’s budget will be cut to make this possible? especially in a city as cash strapped as Philadelphia. the first time someone catches a 15 year old using it to surf porn, who’s going to pay for the law suit against the city? the first time a hacker uses it for illegal purposes, who’s going to compensate the business on the receiving end of the attack?
    i doubt even half the residents of the city own a wi-fi enabled devices, and yet they’ll all pay for the service through taxes.
    hardly seems fair, really. most of the people with wi-fi enabled machines already get “free” access at work, at the coffee shop, at the hotel, at home… do we really need to be able to check our email from a street corner while we wait for a cab?

  • cold wolf

    ah, wonderful. i thought of this a long time ago, here.

    i prefer the idea of a mesh network that gets routed through gateways, so you only need a few transmitters that connects with PCs and forwards their signal to the gateway and onto the internet (one on every lamp post? too expensive and unnecessary). it’s possible to monitor activity, but only if it’s sent through govt controlled servers. but thats probably the case. which is why i think the client should encrypt all traffic and be ‘anonimized’ (ie tracks leading back to the client erased).

    the system must be open, so that we can see exactly what kind of information is being sent through the city net (ie if it keeps track of the origin) and what gets done with it (analyzed?).

    building this network wouldn’t make internet access a right. it’s just another utility that you pay for through taxes and therefore a good idea to take advantage of.

  • Darryl Green

    I have yet to see any commentary on whether it is good economics for a governmental entity to get involved in something that is clearly within reach of the private sector. I suggest that it is not. A private business has the benefit of singular focus on meeting customer needs. Private enterprises have to compete with other private enterprises to offer the best service, which in turn brings service levels up for everyone and drives constant innovation. Government, by its nature, has competing interests that generally result, best intentions acknowledged, in such ventures hitting a wall over time (e.g. What happens when the infrastructure could use an upgrade or service levels need improving and a new administration has other spending priorities? There are no private enterprises left in the business or who want to reenter the business for fear the goverment will end up giving away the service. And the consitituents are acclimatized to getting the service for free in any event).

    As a matter of conviction, the government should only get involved when:
    1) An enterprise is too large or too risky for Private Enterprise ‘and’
    2) There is a demonstrable public good associated with the enterprise.
    3) There is a national security imperative

    (3) is not applicable in this case. Yes, there is a demostrable public good, but it is neither too large nor too risky for Private Enterprise. GPS by contrast did have a national security imperative and in any event would have been too big/risky for private investment.

    There are other options available to the municipalities that want to have ubiquitous wireless coverage and ensure that the all their citizens have access to it. I don’t know about Philadelphia specifically but i know in other jurisdictions that entrepreneurs are already evaluating and investigating means of providing this type of service. If necessary, governments can help lower the risk and drive specific behaviours by providing tax incentives or investment funds for those entrepreneurs. However, I can’t agree that the government itself should make this a public work.