Berry’s Wi-Fi Proposal Sends Bad Signal

The Rio Grande Foundation has generally supported Mayor Berry’s leadership as Mayor. Obviously, large numbers of Albuquerque voters agree with his fiscally-conservative, personally moderate style of leadership as the Mayor was re-elected with 68 percent of the vote.

Every day mayors and other politicians face the temptation to join the latest fad in the hopes of finding a dramatic way to use government on the theory that expanding government beyond the basics will result in improved economic growth.

Back when Mayor Berry took office, the idea being pushed by some was a new taxpayer-financed events center/arena. Thankfully, we convinced the Mayor not to go down that path which would have significantly worsened our city’s economic condition.

The newest idea is for the City to spend up to $1 million to create a public wi-fi network around Central Avenue. While well-intentioned, municipal wi-fi efforts have a long track record of failure to achieve technical goals (speed and coverage), they also have a long track record of cost overruns.

Consider nearby Rio Rancho which canceled its municipal wi-fi service with service provider Azulstar in 2007 over $33,000 in unpaid electrical bills. Azulstar was never able to come up with a viable business plan.

Lest you think that problems are unique to Rio Rancho or New Mexico, Houston, Chicago, St. Louis, and even technology-happy San Francisco have had colossal wi-fi failures.

Of course, Mayor Berry is only proposing wi-fi for a portion of Albuquerque. That may mitigate against cost overruns and some of the more serious technical problems, but as someone who lives adjacent to another one of the City’s busiest roads, it seems a bit unfair that my neighbors and I are paying upwards of $60 a month for something that taxpayers could soon provide to a chosen few for free.

The idea that this “free” wi-fi will perform better than the services provided by for-profit businesses like Comcast and CenturyLink defies every economic principle and reality. A truly world class free and open network will quickly succumb the demands of the heaviest users of Internet services (those who download movie files and play bandwidth-intensive games) and will bog down the network.

Worse still, what about the numerous businesses – Flying Star and Starbucks being just two – that have invested thousands of dollars in free wi-fi systems for their businesses? Why would local government impose its own taxpayer-financed system on top of the services provided to customers and non-customers alike by these and other businesses?

Lastly, as a conservative, Mayor Berry should respect the private investments of businesses like Comcast and CenturyLink have made in their Internet infrastructure. It would be economically-foolish for government to step in and attempt to take hundreds or thousands of paying customers from these businesses.

Our City and State suffer from a public policy climate that is relatively unattractive to business. Using City tax dollars to crowd out investments being made by private businesses is bad policy.

The good news is that just like the events center four years ago; municipal wi-fi is just a proposal at this point. Mayor Berry has proven himself a sensible man who is open to persuasive arguments. I hope this time will be the same.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility