Michigan legislators wants to ban wireless

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/15/2005 - 09:06

The Detroit News has a report on a Michigan legislator who has introduced a bill to ban local governments in the state from getting involved in wireless efforts. The article does not shed any light on what the motivation behind the bill is, but the wireless project in Oakland County which is described in the article is worth reviewing.

The article cites "experts" who all agreed that it would cost $50 to $100 million to provide wireless throughout Oakland county. There are several things wrong here. First, it is very hard for me to take seriously the estimate of an "expert" whose figures may be off by 100% or $50 million. That does not sound like an expert to me. If the county, which is considering the wireless initiative, can't get better numbers than that, it hurts their efforts by publicizing such vague estimates.

I have a hard time with "big bang" projects, where the whole county just wakes up one day and has broadband wireless (hence the big bang). Typically, a public sector or private sector project ought to start with a modest investment and expand incrementally as demand builds, using revenue to finance expansion. We have very few examples (if any) of wide area wireless networks and the expected take rate (how many people sign up for the service and how fast). Spending even the low figure of $50 million in advance of understanding the market is risky. Wireless, much more than fiber, ought to grow in response to market demand.

Using this kind of vague estimating, most communities would never have been able to get public water, sewer, or good roads. Someone would have said, "It will cost $100 million to run water to every home in the county, and there's no way we can afford that." Of course not, but no county in the country ever tried to run water to every home in a year or two.

Oakland County should get some deserved credit for thinking about addressing broadband needs systematically, but a go-slow approach may yield more benefits with less risk and private sector investment. There are a lot of good community projects in Michigan, and places like Grand Rapids and the work of visionaries like Ray Hoag and Dirk Koenig have been leading the way for years. This anit-muni bill should die a quick death, or the communities of Michigan will lose, as will the state, as businesses head elsewhere.

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