Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Kirk LaPointe and the Pie Crust Promise

with 4 comments

A “pie crust promise” is one that’s easily made and easily broken. Politicians seem especially prone to this failing. They make a promise then realize afterwards that what they have promised is not that easy to deliver – and even if they do will have far reaching consequences that they had not considered. Kirk LaPointe is an inexperienced politician: he has lots of experience of course, just not of working in the public sector as an elected official. The following exchange on Twitter yesterday seems to reflect this reality.


Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 12.08.48 PM

He tweeted a commitment that the “NPA will bring free WiFi city-wide”. Let us take him at his word and assume away some of the practical difficulties. What would free WiFi everywhere, all the time mean? For a start everyone who has a modem and a contract with a telco will cancel it. If I have free WiFi from the city why would I pay for it? I am not at all sure that Shaw and Telus would be pleased by this development. Providing free wifi would also mean that a lot of services that can now be accessed over the internet would be preferred to other delivery methods. If I have free wifi do I need a home telephone? Skype or a VOIP service would probably do. There were, once upon a time, shops that would rent out DVDs. Very few remain as delivery methods  of video content have changed. City-wide WiFi would have a similar impact, I think.

There are already extensive telecommunication networks across the city – and most of their customers are unhappy. Canadians are convinced that they pay far too much for cable tv and cell phone services – especially if they use a lot of data. Considerable amounts of capital have been invested in cell phone towers and cables of all kinds. Much of the fibre optic cable that was installed in the gadarene rush a few years back remains dark. The original companies went bust, and their networks were scooped up at bargain prices. Which is one reason why we no longer complain about long distance charges. It has always been the last link in the network – from trunk line to individual customer that has been the weakest link. Very few of us enjoy fibre optic into our homes or businesses. But free city wide wifi should sort out that problem – but probably not to the satisfaction of the current carriers.

Just as Mayors who try to tell railway companies what to do find themselves in unexpected difficulties, so, I think, will Mayors who decide to upset the apple cart for the telecommunications companies. Vancouver is a very important market for them and they have already shown companies like Mobilicity and Wind that they do not take kindly to those who try to take even a small share of their market.

I expressed skepticism of his proposal. I did not have the same number of characters at my disposal on Twitter as I do here so I used a pithy, North American expression. It became popular after a clever conman sold the Brooklyn Bridge. Not once, but twice! You have to admire that sort of chutzpah in a salesman. But we are now wary of such schemes, are we not? I think we should be equally wary of candidates for civic office prepared to make what my Mum used to term “a rash promise in a weak moment.”   Or maybe Mr Lapointe will now try to reel back some of his apparent commitment for the same reason that I must now explain I do not actually have a bridge to sell. Which I had assumed would be obvious.

Of course we have been sold bridges recently. Bridges that we did not actually need. Bridges that we now cannot afford. Not that that is stopping another politician from trying to sell us a third one. We have far too readily accepted nostrums from politicians that could not possibly deliver what they promised. Widening roads and building new ones has never solved traffic congestion, nor can they for more than a brief period. Just as cutting taxes for the wealthy did not make us all better off: wealth did not trickle down nor did the rising tide raise all boats. Yet we still elect these rascals.

I am not in the bridge selling business. I am in the skepticism business. I have no axe to grind other than a desire to sow seeds of doubt: for doubt has always served me better than faith. Free WiFi city wide? I doubt it. I really do.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm

4 Responses

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  1. What Kirk promises is probably something like already existing in Paris:

    or may be “The could” the free wifi hotspot network in London (It is usually painfully slow, nevertheless enough to synch email, or make a skype call)…

    I haven’t heard yet stories of Parisian or Londoner canceling contracts because they can get free -wifi either in the park or in the subway…

    Cambridge BRT buses have free wifi as well…

    Not sure why all that could not be possible in Vancouver:
    All that can come pretty handy, especially for visitor whose have no cheap and reasonable access otherwise

    A promise of free city wifi is certainly something a municipal council can honour more easily than a promise to build a subway with someone else money, so I am not sure what your concerns are.


    September 7, 2014 at 11:37 am

  2. See I had this idea that when someone says “free wifi” they mean “free wifi someone would actually be able to use”. The promise of “free wifi so crippled as to be virtually useless” does not seem nearly so attractive. But when tweeting out messages the 140 character limit kicks in. Unless the small print can be attached as a jpg. And, in fairness to Mr LaPointe he has not actually clarified his commitment – yet.

    There was “free wifi” of the type you mention in Florence. I am glad I did not need to rely on it.

    And thanks to RainCoaster I now know of another way that we could see a rash of nasty wifi hotspots here
    Comcast weakens consumer security by injecting ads through its public hotspots

    Stephen Rees

    September 7, 2014 at 3:16 pm

  3. Yeah, it could well be corporate-sponsored, but actually Kirk could easily do this without corporate funding. Heck, the Fearless City project from W2 had the capability to do it over the DTES years ago. They had the hardware, they just never got around to using it. The cost for ubiquitous wifi is really not that excessive. And I know Kirk and believe him when he says he can make it happen.

    BTW there is also free wifi in Victoria, although thanks to all the stone buildings it’s not that good.

    Really, logistically this is not very difficult, and not that expensive.


    September 8, 2014 at 9:14 pm

  4. Well. Kirk lost so all of this is now academic. But if you want to understand why free public wifi may not be exactly what it seems at face value see this piece on New York’s proposal.

    Stephen Rees

    November 24, 2014 at 2:22 pm

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