Several years ago, people in lots of cities and municipalities around the U.S. formed volunteer organizations to establish free wireless Internet access (wifi) in public places.   The one where I live, NYCwireless, has been active since 2001,  and the organization has worked to builr free, public wifi networks in over ten New York City parks and open spaces through partnerships with local parks organizations.   My favorite of these is the wifi at Bryant Park, just behind the main New York Public Library, in part because there are ample movable chairs and tables so the park easily becomes an outdoor workspace.

Broadband companies around the U.S. have pulled out of their original support for free wifi in cities.   Verizon, in particular, has been especially aggressive about killing free wifi in NYC.

Now, the Bush administration is – as ever – using government to support the interests of industry. Bush’s Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, sent a letter to the FCC chairman expressing the administration’s displeasure with the idea of free wifi.

All of this raises a fundamental question about how we think about wireless Internet access.   If we conceptualize it as a privilege, then only those who can afford to pay the full price set by companies like Verizon, have access to it.   In this way of thinking about it, wireless Internet access is a luxury item, like high-definition cable tv.

If, instead, we conceive of Internet access as a public utility – like clean running water – then providing it becomes a different sort of issue.   When thought of in this way, free wifi becomes something of a social justice issue in which the goal is to provide a majority of the people with a utility that will improve their lives.  Robin Mansell makes a persuasive case for this latter view in his 2002 article, “From Digital Divides to Digital Entitlements in a Knowledge Society,” (Current Sociology, 50 (3). pp. 407-426).  Mansell contends that we need to move away from thinking about Internet access exclusively in terms of access, affordability, and capabilities and skills for employability in industry  and instead, think of ways to configure new media technologies as onfigured in ways that could enable the majority of people to strengthen their abilities to make choices about how they wish to live their lives. Mansell argues that a rights-based approach to new media policy is essential and that it must be based upon a fundamental notion of peoples entitlement to new media technologies in emerging knowledge societies.

It’s a provocative stance, but one I’m persuaded by.   Based on my current research with homeless, LGBTQ youth in New York City, I see first-hand how new media technologies make a difference in these kids’ lives.   Most of them have Internet-enabled “smart” phones and they consider these crucial tools for survival on the streets, not luxuries.    And, increasingly, homeless people across the country rely on the Internet to access services, find temporary housing, locate jobs and stay connected to social networks.   Efforts like Verizon’s and the Bush administration’s attempts to restrict free wifi only serve to punish the most economically vulnerable members of our society, and that kind of thinking is just so five-minutes-ago.

It will be interesting to see how a new administration responds to the challenge of new media technologies.  There are some indications that an Obama administration is committed to expanding broadband capacity in the U.S., and  recently the transition team announced that “wireless is a vital component of the broadband and infrastrucure equation.” From my perspective, the plan that the new administration should be working on is one to reinvigorate the push for free wifi in public parks, spaces in urban centers.   That’s some change I can believe in.