Free Public Wifi
Digital Inclusion Is Vital For Access To Education And Economic Mobility
“Thousands of Omahans do not have access to Broadband internet in their homes. This became abundantly clear during COVID pandemic. We believe no one should get left behind because they can't afford or need to prioritize other expenses in lieu of internet access.” --Cammy Watkins
Necessary For Families
Access to the internet has become a critical part of modern life. We all apply for jobs online, attend classes, and conduct necessary functions like banking, renewing licenses, and applying for federal programs. However, even with a publicly-funded internet infrastructure, internet providers have continued to keep the costs prohibitive for lower income residents. Providing a public option is simply a way for these providers to pay taxpayers who funded the networks used to connect to the internet.
Great For Businesses
Public WiFi doesn’t just benefit individuals without access. It helps businesses and residents connect and improve the reputation of a city by being business friendly and by supporting the needs of tourists traveling for business. Public WiFi aids our community in bridging the technology gap for our budding tech talent by providing greater equity in technology access. It would also demonstrate to businesses that Omaha is a technologically advanced city with modern conveniences, and thus a great place to move their organization.
Let’s Talk Investment
Public WiFi will require and investment in our community, but it will generate economic activity that is 10 times our investment. However, many cities across the country have successfully implemented a public WiFi option at a very affordable rate by partnering with a private entity. For example, the city of San Jose created a public WiFi in partnership with a private business to provide secure, free wifi in their downtown area. The cost to build the network upfront was $94,000, but is now maintained at a cost of $22,000 annually. The city of Omaha would only need a network of 45% the size of San Jose to provide the same level of access to our citizens. Even an investment of $45,000 could have an ROI of $5 million in time-saving and business activity growth. Further, there are a number of ways to offset these costs including:
Omaha could offer valuable marketing opportunities for businesses as well with banner and tower ads available on the login screen of the WiFi portal.
Omaha could convert existing outdated infrastructure like old phone booths into hot spots to reduce the upfront costs.
Omaha could also partner with a non-profit organization to help raise the funds through donations and grants.
Omaha could invest in new technologies (ie: mesh networks) which could reduce upfront investments and could increase speeds by a factor of 5.
Omaha could investigate potential sponsorship with apps like What’s App or WeChat that can provide a communication platform and grow their user base.
The reality is that the city of Omaha could easily find a way to pay for the cost of public WiFi through innovative and novel models, without overburdening taxpayers. It would simply require the political will of our City Council to decide to provide this important access, which benefits individuals and businesses.
The costs of free WiFi must be measured against the benefits to truly understand the viability. Most of these benefits are “intangible” meaning they are not as simple to measure as the financial cost. However, these easily outweigh a few thousand a year that public WiFi cost. Some of the intangible benefits of public WiFi include:
People could access job opportunities they could not before, leading to lower unemployment rates and more money circulating in the economy and increasing the city’s tax base.
People will have better access to higher education and could use that education to grow in their careers or start their own businesses, again putting more money into the local economy.
Local entrepreneurs could have better broadband speeds and access for their online business bringing money from outside of the state to be spent in Omaha.
People could have access to the available resources to live a safe, happy life, reducing the costs on taxpayers to fund avoidable crisis and social breakdown.
In the end the economic cost/benefit analysis of public WiFi access weighs heavily in the favor of the benefits. Public WiFi will cost money, but it will absolutely generate more money for our local economy. It is a truly worthwhile public investment.
Is It Safe?
Though public WiFi networks are less secure than a personal WiFi network, there are several steps the city can take to ensure that personal data is being protected on the network. Along with the implementation of these security features, there will have to be a public education campaign for residents to understand the risks and how to mitigate them with the right protective measures including Virtual Private Network (VPN) systems.