The Silliest Policy we Have: Why free municipal Wi-Fi doesn’t and can’t work.

Commentary, Disruption, David Seymour


In 2007 Saskatchewan leapt into the free public wireless internet boondoggle. Any grade 12 economics student could have explained why Saskatchewan! Connected, the government funded wireless internet service covering major Saskatchewan downtowns and tertiary campuses, wouldn’t (and couldn’t) work. No matter how minor it may be in the greater scheme of public policy, it’s a particularly frustrating little bit of silliness.
The service advertises that it will connect you to the internet in Saskatchewan’s busiest areas, “at a coffee shop, business, restaurant, study hall, hotel lobby (even a park bench) near you!” The vision is seductive. In Saskatchewan’s densest areas of commercial and academic activity, anyone with a wifi capable laptop or smart phone can access the internet free of charge. It conjures up a vision of Saskatchewan’s inclusive society boldly entering the twenty-first century.  The scheme even has a cute genesis; it was thought up by students at a youth leadership forum. 
The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. Anyone who has seen one of the scheme’s signature stickers at a venue and tried to log on is familiar with patchy connections, slow downloads, and downright unreliable service. If anecdote seems like a flimsy basis for such a critique, it’s about all we have to go on. Neither costs nor performance data for the service are available from the provincial government budget, the public accounts, the website of the Information Technology Office or ITO (which administers the service), the ITO’s annual report, or its otherwise rigorous performance plans.
The main public libraries of Saskatoon and Regina, as well as the two universities, and many hotels and cafes are in the zone but offer their own alternative services to their clients. The Saskatoon public library even provides a list of alternative providers on its website. In so doing, these public institutions and private businesses are polling a vote of no confidence in the service.
The reason Saskatchewan! Connected fails is intuitive to understand, even without grade 12 economics. If the provincial government really did provide a reliable internet service free of charge in the province’s busiest areas, everyone would be using it. Not only would libraries, universities, cafes and hotels stop offering their own services to their clients, but businesses and residences in the zones would start to abandon their private subscriptions as well. With each additional user, Saskatchewan! Connected would have to expand its bandwidth until it had effectively nationalised internet access in the established zones. It’s no hyperbole to describe that as communist.
The central problem is that when a service is “free” at the point of consumption, price no longer motivates anyone to use it carefully. If the demand is not managed by price, there has to be another reason for people not to use the service more and more until it collapses. It is unreliability and inconvenience that fulfil this role. To wit, the only way this service can work economically is if it doesn’t work technically.
Why should the government waste time and money providing a service that (so far as anyone can tell) has such poor results and, worse, couldn’t be expected to do any better? It could be easily fixed in three ways which, together or separately, would be an improvement on what we have now: 
First, the ITO should start publishing performance data for the service. Knowing how many people actually use it and how much bandwidth are they able to access would at least make the system transparent. 
Second, the ITO should do what most public wifi services worldwide do, and actually charge a price to manage demand. Reliable internet at a fair price is better than unreliable internet at any price. 
Third, the network should be privatised. Only when the network is managed by somebody with a direct interest in its profits and losses will it become truly responsive to consumer demand and provide something more like the service advertised. If that seems like an extreme reaction, consider how it’s been run for the last four years.
Of course, amongst all the public policy questions that Saskatchewan faces, what to do with Saskatchewan! Connected is easily one of the most trivial. Nevertheless, it is particularly frustrating to see the government doing something that not only doesn’t work but can’t. Reforming it would be a nice symbol that the government understands the role of governments.