The city is evaluating plans from five companies that submitted proposals last week to create a citywide wireless system for Internet and other communications.
The competitive process was kicked off by Mayor Martin Chávez as a way to bring free wireless to town and get more residents than ever before connected to the Internet.
The mayor envisions a two-tiered wireless Internet signal covering the entire city that will support not just the basics of Web surfing, e-mail and the like, but phone service and video as well. If this vision is fulfilled, the basic tier will be a free, 1 megabit signal for anyone and a premium service at 3 megabit for a reasonable cost. A secure 4.9 gigahertz signal for the city’s private use— fire, police, rescue and such— is also part of the proposal.
This all sounds great, and if a company is willing to step up and make what some analysts believe could be a $25 million investment for the privilege of providing this service, it would be hard for the city to say “no.”
But there are some very real stumbling blocks on the entrance ramp to the information superhighway that have tripped up our neighbors in Rio Rancho and Sandoval County.
Back in 2003, Rio Rancho contracted with a Michigan-based wireless company named Azulstar to provide eight hours of free wireless service to anyone accessing the network within city limits in return for use of the city’s rights of way.
The system is so dysfunctional that the agreement has been put on life-support until mid-August, at which point the deal may be terminated by the city. But, at least it hasn’t cost taxpayers anything.
Sandoval County, on the other hand, has wasted at least $1.2 million on a system that, according to County Commissioner David Bency, is no more usable than “a series of tomato cans attached to a string.”
The problems that have plagued both systems should serve as a warning to Albuquerque leaders that they also must carefully evaluate the city’s role in setting up such a system. At the very least, Albuquerque must stick to its guns by making sure that no taxpayer money be spent to subsidize a wireless system.
Additionally, while not a direct financial subsidy, it would also be a mistake to give one provider exclusive favors that it doesn’t offer to other potential entrants. This could be a major stumbling block as any company making a $25 million investment will likely want to lock in some kind of monopoly status in order to protect its investment. Of course, consumers would then be locked in to the municipal service as other providers leave the city unable to compete with a favored provider.
It is important to have a clear understanding that providing wireless service is much different than managing roads and sewers. Roads and sewers require investments that make their private provision quite difficult under current conditions. Will the new system put private industry out of business?
Assurances must be made to ensure that those who are willing to pay for Internet and wireless services above and beyond what the city’s chosen provider offers will have that option available and that existing competitors will not be driven out of the market.
The last issue is changing technology. New technologies known as GSM (global system for mobile communications) and CDMA (code division multiple access) are widely deployed by major commercial providers. Is Albuquerque’s provider going to be ready to change if another technology takes hold? What if wi-fi becomes irrelevant as a technology in just a few years?
It is human nature to want something for nothing. Nowhere is that attitude more prevalent than the fast-changing field of computing, where more powerful at a lower price is the expectation.
Before we delegate our choices over how we connect to the Internet to the city’s chosen contractor, Mayor Chávez and the council must have a firm grasp on the issues and be willing to walk away if no one can properly fulfill these requests.
Paul Gessing is president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.