Graduate students help Monona avoid net loss on municipal internet project

Students and faculty conduct rigorous assessment of potential Wi-Fi infrastructure plan, provide feedback to mitigate financial risk

Author

Devin R. Larsen

Contributors

Shelly Strom, Marshall Curry

Metrics

Community
City of Monona, WI, United States
Community Size
8,045 (2018 Census Estimation)
University
University of Wisconsin - Madison
Program
UniverCity Year
Years
2016/2017
Case Type
Project Stories
Region
EPA Region 5, USA

Internet access is often required to access facets of everyday life, including purposes related to work, communication, media access, and more. As corporations and vested interests have recently sought to monopolize Internet access into a for-profit, privatized system of few (Shaffer, Gwen), hundreds of municipal entities have begun providing access to its residents and businesses to improve social and economic circumstances surrounding Internet availability (Institute for Local Self-Reliance). 

The City of Monona is a small community just east of Madison, Wisconsin, with over 8,000 residents. In recent years, the city has looked to redevelop the city for the modern age. However, while they want to provide Internet access as a public good to their community, municipal officials wanted to investigate whether the project would be more of a financial burden than they expected it to be. 

The UniverCity Year program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an EPIC-Network member, was created to help local government and community partners with identified sustainability and livability projects. Participating University faculty incorporate community-identified projects into classes, and provide students with on-the-ground experience in support of a more sustainable and livable future for the partnered community. 

During the 2016 to 2017 academic year, the City of Monona was chosen to partner with the UniverCity Year program due to its proximity to the university and for strong support from Mayor Bob Miller. 

Public Affairs students evaluate costs and benefits 

The UniverCity Year program partnered UW-Madison’s Public Affairs 881: Cost-Benefit Analysis course with the City of Monona to perform a cost-benefit analysis on the city’s idea to implement widespread in-home wireless internet. With the guidance of Professor Dave Weimer, students set out on identifying qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits for the installation of a citywide in-home wireless internet program, utilizing literary research and statistical assumptions to evaluate outcomes. 

Costs and benefits explored by participating students involved the following:

Costs:

  • Financial costs on the city
  • Financial and utility costs on the consumer

Benefits: 

  • Financial benefits
    • In-home benefits
    • Outdoor Wi-Fi benefits
  • Social welfare benefits
    • Business community
    • Fire and police improvements
    • Public parks

Results prove municipal Wi-Fi would be detrimental 

Through their cost-benefit assessment, students determined that Monona’s idea for the installment of a municipal Wi-Fi system would be detrimental for both residents and local government. Students reported that “802 observations returned negative benefits,” meaning that there is an “80 percent chance that the service will return a negative net benefit” (UniverCity Year project final report). 

Benefits will not compensate for project costs 

Furthermore, students examine the viability of an outdoor Wi-Fi system, the results of which produced similar results:

“Our Monte Carlo simulation of 1000 iterations found that there was no single event of the simulation that returned a positive net benefit for the project. The mean was negative $269,800 and the standard deviation was $54,700. This project will overall not return benefits that will compensate for the costs of this project” (UniverCity Year project final report).

Thanks to the analysis performed by Professor Dave Weimer’s students, Monona learned that it would be financially devastating to incorporate either an in-home or outdoor Wi-Fi system into municipal planning. As a result, the City of Monona has decided to forgo a municipal Wi-Fi project for the time being. 

Read the full story of the partnership.

Read the final report delivered to the local gov/community partner.