Los Angeles May Offer Free City-Wide Wi-Fi

In just four years, Americans have gone from spending almost three and a quarter hours engaging with digital devices daily to spending more than five hours on them. The average American household has communication bills of more than $2,000 each year. That's about 21 percent more than they spent in 2006. As the cost of staying connected climbs, wouldn't it be nice to cut these bills? If you live in Los Angeles, this fantasy may soon become a reality as the city considers rolling out free Wi-Fi.

How Would It Work?

In November 2013, the Los Angeles city council voted unanimously to request proposals from Internet vendors. The city doesn't have the funding to finance the free Wi-Fi, so it's looking for a company who's prepared to pay for the resources needed to expedite any permitting and inspections required to lay the cables. The endeavor would require a significant investment, but the winning vendor may recoup this by selling ads or offering triple-play packages bundling high-speed Internet, landline, and television services.

It's expected that choosing the vendor and building the infrastructure could take up to a year. Once in effect, the free Wi-Fi would allow home users, businesses, and mobile customers to get access to free broadband Internet at speeds of between 2Mbps and 5Mbps from anywhere in Los Angeles. For example, workers could log on for free using their LG cell phones during their morning commute, then access the same broadband from their laptops once they arrive at the office. It's expected that the free plans would be offered alongside paid plans scaled for faster Internet access of up to a gigabit.

What Are the Benefits?

Free Wi-Fi would obviously benefit the pockets of Los Angeles' residents and business owners, but implementing the scheme would also bring other, less expected perks.

The office of Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who's been instrumental in promoting the initiative, says the program will create local jobs and benefit workforce development schemes. It'll also enhance Los Angeles' reputation as a tech-friendly city.

The program will also improve educational opportunities for Los Angeles' students by boosting the L.A. Unified School District's iPad program. The initiative looks to offer a free tablet to all students as well as their administrators and teachers.. However, as almost a third of student households don't have broadband Internet, many pupils currently can't use the devices to their full potential. This makes taking online classes more appealing to residents and should help increase education rates

What Are the Downsides?

The Los Angeles' city council appears optimistic, but we've heard this kind of thing before. In 2004, Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, was every bit as confident when he declared "We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless-Internet service." However, the city did stop. Now nine years later, Google says it'll provide free Wi-Fi to 31 of the city's parks, but this plan is a far cry from the citywide infrastructure promised. Building such an extensive Wi-Fi network is expensive and difficult, as geographical and architectural barriers can impede the signals. Voting for citywide Wi-Fi is the easy part; the hard work is still to come.

If Los Angeles gets its citywide Wi-Fi up and running, the residents and visitors who use it may make themselves vulnerable to security threats. It's likely to be an open network rather than a secured one, so anyone in the city limits can easily get connected. That's not just business owners, students, and families, but cyber criminals too. We've all been warned of the dangers of using unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots for Internet banking and online shopping. Imagine if you had to be concerned about similar security risks every time you logged on.

The speeds are also a concern. Americans currently enjoy average download speeds of 8.6 Mbps. Will they settle for the expected speeds of between 2Mbps and 5Mbps, even if they're free?

If Los Angeles' plans for city-wide Wi-Fi do come to fruition, the city would become America's largest with free wireless broadband access. If the scheme is successful, it may be just a matter of time before we see other major U.S. centers extending the same courtesy to their residents and guests. 

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