IBEC oppose blanket WiFi coverage for Dublin

Dublin City Council has put public WiFi for Dublin back on the agenda, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that IBEC are agin it:

“In effect Dublin City Council would be diverting public funds to put existing WiFi operators out of business, causing redundancies, and it could have an overall negative impact on the broadband market through what boils down to below cost selling.”

This is the sort of response I predicted in some comments I left on John Carroll’s blog back in July. To quote myself:

Switching on a citywide hotspot would be an admirable public service by the City Council, but it would bring them into immediate conflict with existing commercial interests, i.e. broadband and WiFi access providers like eircom, BT and BitBuzz. These companies would view any free or even cut-price access as unfair competition with their own offerings. This is almost certainly what lies at the root of the City Manager’s reluctance to push this one forward.

IBEC’s claims of prospective redundancies (which I don’t take seriously) should be set against the overall competitive advantage Dublin would gain as a city blanketed with cheap wifi. However in this case protecting the interests of existing players has weighed more heavily on IBEC’s mind than achieving an overall improvement in the economic environment in the city.

The City Council’s service wouldn’t compete with commercial broadband, but it’s true that it might result in loss of business for commercial providers of wifi hotspots. However there are still plenty of furrows for these providers to plough, and it would actually be of benefit if they were to concentrate on switching on hotspots in trickier locations than the city centre.

I am not without sympathy for the hotspot providers (one of the founders of Bitbuzz is a friend and former colleague of mine), but it seems to me that they are reaping the benefit of an artificial WiFi shortage in the city. If the whole city can be turned on cheaply, why should consumers be forced to pay high hourly rates and mess about with vouchers every time they want to get online in the city centre? Why should we have to find a cafe or bar to work in when WiFi can be provided in other public spaces?

IBEC “urges the Council to meet with industry to discuss their proposals and find a sustainable way forward”. I don’t doubt that their idea of a “sustainable way forward” is one in which the profits of their members are sustained. If the Council doesn’t agree to cut them in for a taste, I fully expect that at least one operator will threaten legal action in order to stop it going ahead. Such are the difficulties faced by anyone trying to provide a new public service in today’s ideological climate.

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