Offering free, government-sponsored Internet to the masses began with good intentions.
It’s not exactly the Great Emancipation, but just a few years ago, free access to the Internet was considered the gold standard of an up-and-coming municipality.
Or at least the belief seemed to be that Wi-Fi is “technology”—chips and wires and invisible electronics—so making it free has to foster tech-related business. Throw the poor into the mix of those helped, since some can’t afford to purchase their own Internet service, and you have an easy victory.
Today, almost 60 cities have some level of free wireless Internet access. Downtown Las Vegas’ freebie service was officially unveiled a week ago with a Wi-Fi-related scavenger hunt.
The free Wi-Fi idea Las Vegas bought into has the technology beaming around Downtown streets full of businesses and lawyers, most of whom already have Wi-Fi. It’s not heading for John S. Park, Huntridge, McNeil or other Downtown neighborhoods, at least not any time soon. Right now, according to the city’s website, you can get free Internet from Main Street to Las Vegas Boulevard along the Fremont Street Experience. You can also get it on parts of East Fremont Street, or the Fremont East Entertainment District.
Maybe it works well under the Experience canopy, but that area is more for tourists. A few blocks away on Fremont Street, where Downtowners may be found, the service is kind of sketchy and slow.
It’s a little confusing, too. Three Wi-Fi sites purport to be free: LV.Net, LasVegas.Net and FreeCityWifi.
FreeCityWifi might work, but after waiting several minutes, it wouldn’t connect, so I chucked it. The other two seem to be the city’s free service. They worked but were slow to connect. And that was close to the front window of the Beat—when I stepped 20 feet inward and sat at the coffee bar, the signal diminished from four bars to two.
All of this is to say: Free Internet seems like a good idea, but it’s an idea whose time has already come and gone.
The website Policymic.com wrote a fairly comprehensive obituary of free, municipal-provided Wi-Fi, at least in its current state. Among the problems, it’s slow: Like Las Vegas’ free service, the speed is typically 1 megabit per second. Meanwhile, “the average broadband download speed in the United States is 8.6 Mbps, and the average smartphone (speed) can range from 1-5 Mbps for 3G services and 5-17 Mbps for (4G) LTE service.”
In 2007, when the city first started talking about free Wi-Fi, slow wouldn’t have mattered. People would have knelt at the foot of the mayor and kissed his or her ring for any kind of free Wi-Fi.
Today you’ve got to be much faster and more reliable. A city spokesman said this is a pilot project and tweaks will be made as needed to improve service.
The same Policy Mic article says 85 percent of Americans already have access to the Internet, and “70 percent of adults have high-speed Internet in their homes.” Of those who don’t have Internet at home, “nearly half claim they simply don’t want or need it.”
It goes on to recommend using a public-private model to finance a fiber-optic network, which can generate new business.
Let’s just say it now: In cash-strapped Las Vegas, where the police, fire and other unionized employees will fight tooth and nail for more money as the economy improves, that isn’t going to happen.
What will? Nothing.
No one will notice. Just like they don’t notice anything today, with the free Wi-Fi already offered in a smattering of locales Downtown. I asked five people sitting around me in the coffeehouse: “Are you using the city’s free Wi-Fi?”
Just like me, they all said no. I tried the city’s service, but it was too slow. So I did what I normally do: turned my smart phone’s “hotspot” on and used that as my gateway to the Internet.