Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Powerful Idea: Free Municipal WIFI, the Poor, and Used Computers

Here is an idea, I think, whose time has some.

I've been talking to folks in three different cities who are working to deploy free citywide wireless broadband projects, and I have been struck by something: these wifi projects gain political support in part as a means of providing internet access to the poor, or "bridging the digital divide." But actually helping the poor to take advantage of the wifi service is a hurdle that hasn't really been overcome. In fact, I called a company in the UK that specializes in putting in wireless in apartment buildings and hotels, and they said that their experience has been that the use of free wireless in apartment buildings can typically be measured by income: that is, the higher the income, the more likely someone is to actually take advantage of the free wireless. Presumably, that relates to the ability to purchase and configure the right computer equipment, which makes sense. (It's maybe a little like pulling into the Costco parking lot and seeing lots of expensive cars.) But it may also mean that those who need free wireless the most are still the least likely to get it.

But several interesting threads are now weaving themselves together to create a solution that could make free wifi the basis for significant social benefit.

Thread number one: every day, in this country, there are 100,000 computers that become obsolete. My personal estimate is that less than 5% get reused here. The rest are shipped overseas, scrapped (sometimes because of data security issues), or just stored. Most cities have one or two non-profit computer refurbishers, but for all the good work that they do, the volume of computers that they produce is significantly constrained by our general lack of interest in using something that is not considered "current" technology, and by the cost of re-licensing the computer with the latest operating system.

Thread number two: the internet appliance--that is, a computer designed just to surf the web-- has not been successful in the past, but is an idea waiting for its time to come. There is still the difficulty of manufacturing and marketing something this specific, since the "traditional" PC defines our concept of personal computing. But with "Web 2.0" fast becoming a reality, a computer that uses the web browser as it's platform (what I call a "WebStation") seems more likely to be a reasonable tool in many circumstances. The used computer, as the entry point for the WebStation, would allow its introduction without the heavy manufacturing costs.

Thread number three: cities and public schools are providing more content, services, and resources on the web, and they have a definite motivation to provide a way for everyone to have access to the web. In the case of a school district, the ability for the administration to assure email and web contact with each student's parents--and for the parents to have access to the schools online administrative, attendance, and record-keeping systems--may actually save money in some areas.

Thread number four: the software to turn a used computer into a web-browsing appliance, or WebStation, is available for free using Linux and Firefox. (To test, download from www.PublicWebStations.com or www.LiveKiosk.com.) Because just running a web browser consumes fewer resources than a traditional full operating system, a Pentium II level computer with 128 MB of RAM works quite well. More than this, these programs can run directly from the CD-ROM or a flash module instead of the hard drive, which could actually drive better donations streams from corporations--as they would be able to destroy their hard drives as part of the process, thus assuring that no sensitive data is ever at risk of being compromised.

These threads lead to an elegant, powerful, inexpensive solution: take the excess computers that cities, school districts, and private companies have in significant numbers, add a wireless network card to them, and use WebStation software to now assure that everyone in a municipal wifi area who needs internet access will have that access at an inexpensive cost. Brilliant, I think.

You also end up solving the traditional nightmare of providing computers, especially used computers, to the poor: training and service. A "WebStation" would require no training beyond how to use a web browser, and because there is no hard drive in the machines, they are essentially maintenance-free: no hard drives or storage means no viruses and no spy ware.

We're currently moving forward with this concept, and encourage anyone with interest to make contact with me directly at steve@hargadon.com.

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