The flight from the inner city (it may not be happening after all, but there are definitely new incentives for it now) has left urban planners looking for ways to coax residents back to urban cores. Free municipal wi-fi could be just what they need.

While its effect might not be as direct as some city planners might like, municipal wireless, as proposed in Philadelphia, is worth a shot. It also presents some interesting questions about free goods.

Somewhat tangential economic discussion below the fold.Once the infrastructure is in place, the wireless is available freely to everybody within city limits. The city would also have to pay the costs of maintaining the system. In other words, this is not a money-making proposition. What might the incentive be then?

JetBlue provides its terminal at JFK with free wireless. A big reason is that JetBlue has the terminal to itself: Any passenger in that terminal is a JetBlue passenger. The wireless can be seen in two ways:

  • a perk that you get when you decide to fly JetBlue, and
  • a way to improve the JetBlue brand name.

Cities might see an investment in wi-fi ($10 million is the estimate to equip Philadelphia) as an investment in the city’s brand name and image.

As discussed on WorldChanging, telecom companies like Verizon quickly moved to block the efforts, citing the city’s unfair advantage. Normally, I would be against the government taking on a project like this that could be done by a private company. There’s just something incredibly … cool … about a “digital city.” If a private company made a move to outfit an entire city with wireless, it would also benefit from the same sort of name recognition as JetBlue. Imagine the publicity! So how about it, Verizon? Cingular? Anyone?