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Monday, November 27, 2006

Free Public WiFi Cuts Both Ways...

Too much of a good thing?

Several municipalities in my neck of the woods, and many others across the globe, are sponsoring, experimenting with, or experiencing an explosion in free wireless Internet access.

Google, the proverbial "Internet Good Guys", have been deploying wireless Internet around the city of Mountain View. The city of Palo Alto, just up the road, has had a free wireless "HotSpot" downtown for almost a year.

And now, as reported by Will Oremus
in the Palo Alto Daily News, a new, broader approach is underway. The association of cities and business leaders throughout Silicon Valley known as Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, has created a model agreement open to some 40 area cities. Silicon Valley Metro Connect, an ad-hoc consortium led by IBM and Cisco, will be the wireless provider.

The result: possibly the largest contiguous wireless Internet "hot spot" in the world -- over 1500 square miles. It will cover most of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, and parts of Alemeda and Santa Cruz counties.

So that's the good news, and represents the kind of social application of technology that we expect from Silicon Valley.

What's the bad news?

Well, if your town has free public WiFi, and you're kid has a laptop and a bicycle, he's now also got unfiltered Internet access. It doesn't much matter what you do to protect the Internet connectivity in your home, if free wireless access is available down the street.

Have you and/or your community leaders engaged in a dialog on the impact of this new kind of community resource?

If you have wireless Internet in your community (and even if you don't!), find a way to bring the discussion of protected, filtered, public Internet access to the fore. When we needed wires, public Internet access was less of an issue, because somebody had to connect you (or your 12-year-old) to the Internet.

But with wireless, it's "Look, hands!"

Contact your local press, and ask about it. Or write a letter to the editor. Your peers in the community might recoil, warning that the local government should not play a role in "censorship". And in the end, they may be right -- ultimately, it's our responsibility as parents and citizens to control the resources that our children use. But even if you just bring awareness to the issue, you will have done your family and your neighbors a great service. Be prepared, though: soon, we'll have to protect each device (that includes our phones and our PDAs -- a topic for another day) because protecting the network will no longer be enough...

And, once again, it becomes clear that we have to reach out and have a dialog with our neighbors and business leaders and community officials to ensure that we're talking about the issues.

It's great that community investments like free wireless Internet enable college students and professionals to access the Internet over their morning coffee, on the commuter train, in the park, or wherever their workday takes them. That's a GOOD thing.

Let's just make sure our community investments also include keeping our kids safe and protected.

Do you have free municipal wireless in your area? How do you feel about it? Has your community engaged in a dialog about the repercussions? Write back and share.


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