Philadelphia, MuFi, and the Whippoorwill of Freedom

If you choose to you can live your life alone
Some people choose the city
Some others choose the good old family home
I like living easy without family ties
Till the whippoorwill of freedom zapped me
Right between the eyes.
         — “Philadephia Freedom”, Elton John / Bernie Taupin (1975)

The entertaining Andy Kessler has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal explaining (with brief digressions to cheese steaks and W.C. Fields) how he has surprised himself by coming to the view that goverment-provided municipal wireless service (Mu-Fi) in Philadelphia might just be an awfully good thing.

While picking elected officials over entrepreneurs (and over Verizon, for that matter) might seem puzzling, his argument is economically sound: Philadelphia will save $2–million a year on its IT budget by putting in Mu-Fi. The cost? About $1–million a year in losses on the service. Net-net, ahem, the move makes sense.

Granted, no-one wants the government, municipal or otherwise, in the role of playing wireless provider — but city officials will quickly tire of help desk calls, leading to the services being sold off to the private sector. And, at least as importantly, it will lead to a wave of wireless communications speciation that could prove awfully nasty to ossified incumbents like Verizon.

So, is Andy right? While I’m nowhere near so sanguine that municipalities can’t find a way to lose millions more than Andy thinks by installing wireless service, I’m awfully attracted by the idea of unleashing a wave of innovation by blanketing cities in wireless service — especially if Verizon doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have the whippoorwill of freedom zapping its subscribers right between the eyes.

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