Some of you may be aware of my recent inglorious failure in the recent council elections. I mention that merely as a ‘declaration of interest’ in regards what I’m writing about today.
Back in the halcyon days of my childhood, I spent a fair bit of time in and out of Pollokshaws Library picking up whatever reading material took my fancy. A frequently renewed item was a book called “Free Stuff For Kids”, which pretty much did exactly what it said on the tin. Generally the deal was you sent a Stamped Addressed Envelope off to a no doubt bored Office Junior in some company or organisation, and in return they forwarded some tat to yourself in order to catch you in the prime of your innocence before healthy cynicism infected your being. I still have the FREE Esperanto course and FREE stamps (Guinea-Bissau if I remember right) planked in a box somewhere.
Of course, very little of the ‘stuff’ was actually free. Quite aside from the sheets of stamps required to be dispatched, the ‘free’ part only really applied to the scabby-heidit wean in question. Much like Viz’s Junior Beer, the methodology was ‘start ’em early’. Someone – most likely the marketing department, and thusly the consumer or taxpayer, was paying for all this junk (the Esperanto lessons were probably funded by someone’s Irn Bru bottles though). It’s the same for the bigger ‘free’ things you tend to avail yourself more of as you get older – education, the health service, roads – there may be no charge at the point of use, but someone, somewhere is paying for it.
(The economists amongst you are likely unimpressed at this homespun hackery and are muttering about externalities as we speak. Good.)
It’s that kind of ‘free’ (here comes the tenuous connection with politics, folks) that was used as a description for the wi-fi scheme proposed by Glasgow Labour in their manifesto earlier this year. And not just a postscript hidden away at the back – it was one of the five main pledges most heavily plugged.
“Labour will make Glasgow a wireless city, providing a free wi-fi network across the entire city, and will increase uptake of broadband among social tenants.”
Firstly, let’s assume Labour aren’t about to make Glasgow an entirely wireless city, unless they’re planning to rip out TV aerials and phone sockets across the city. Let’s also assume we can all agree encouraging the digitally excluded to get ADSL into the home is a good thing. We’re left with “free wi-fi network across the entire city”.
Of course, what ‘free’ means here is free at the point of access. Co-incidentally, the name for what are basically routers on poles when talking about public wi-fi is access points (this stuff just writes itself). You’d think someone would have looked at the costs of setting up these access points, and lo and behold, you’d be right. Let’s have a look at how much moolah they think this sort of thing costs:
Once you apply some metricfication of the kind of witchcraft-generated units our USian cousins seem to adore, it turns out Glasgow City Council will be forking out a minimum of £8.5 million to assemble and install the kit. Then another £2.5 million a year just to keep the bits flowing. That’s £21 million over the 5-year term of the administration*. And that’s assuming no big change in router tech and speed in that five years – which is admittedly not a big possibility, but then again 10 years ago we were all using 56k modems and wondering what the hell those sounds all actually meant.
At a time when GCC are – not exactly uniquely – a bit strapped for cash, it seems a strange choice of priorities when the road network is literally falling to bits and there’s a major international sporting event on its way. That’s not to knock the idea in principle, but like a lot of ideas in principle, it’s only ever going to happen when we’re rolling in it. Regardless, we’re not talking ‘free’ here – either an increase in fees and charges elsewhere or cuts elsewhere.
The alternative would be pretty much further privatisation of the airwaves and public realm. GCC decide they want a city-wide wi-fi network. Tenders are advertised, issued and filled. Maybe even a small rent is charged for the use of municipal property§ to install access points on. O2, Orange, 3, Vodafone etc. aren’t exactly renowned for their corporate largesse. The cost of providing such a service (and to be honest, it’s a push to imagine any company taking it on) would be borne by advertising delivered through the network, a tiered service with preference given to paying corporate customers, and through the acquisition and sale of individual and collective usage data (your rights over which will be annulled the minute you tick ‘I Agree’ on the network’s usage licence). Again, not what a lot of folk would call ‘free’.
Of course, the alternative to all the analysis is that Labour were happy to say anything in the run-up to May’s vote, whether it was possible to deliver on it or not. But surely that can’t be possible?
* – I had thought the big, bad teuchters in Edinburgh were ripping off Glasgow, bus by bus, but it seems not.
§ – This also raises the question of the role of Glasgow Life and other ALEOs part of the “Glasgow Family” [boak]. Do they receive the charges instead?