13 Jan 2006

Best Revolt Since Sliced Bread

So, this is interesting. First off, SEIU's Since Sliced Bread competition closed a while ago and the judges went over the 20,000 entries and eventually selected 21. Interestingly, the idea that I entered was choosen, but not my actual entry. The judges choose idea #19132 entitled ‘Blanket The US With Wireless Access' vs. my idea #125, which is entitled ‘Wireless America Initiative'. I posted mine on the first or second day of the contest I think, sometime around October 6, while 19132 looks like it was about 2 months later.
In fact, I posted about it here when I did it: Since Sliced Bread.
Now, that is pretty wierd, but the funny thing is the animosity shown by the community about the choices, especially that one. They are really angry about it. You can read some of the comments in response to Andy Sterns post here:
Andy, I confess, I am a bit surprised, no.. stunned, that you think those 21 ideas are amazing. Wireless Internet? That is an amazing original idea??? Of all the ideas posted, that was one of the best 21?
I think everyone should vote for the wireless idea.. because a) the internet providers will smash it down in a heartbeat and b) the press will laugh their ass off that so much time and money was wasted coming up with such an ‘amazing' idea.
However, imagine if it did win. It's the most “obvious”, talked-about, blogged-about, written-about public policy idea out there. Everyone and his brother has read (or written) an article advocating blanketing the US with free wireless, in some technology magazine, or on a popular blog like Slashdot. Hell, even Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit) has probably suggested it on his own blog. If that idea does win, it will just point up what a travesty this whole contest has become.
Most of the bloggers seem to agree that the nationwide wireless “idea” is questionable at best. Perhaps a run-off of the remaining 49 ideas to choose a replacement for this idea (or add one more to the 21) would quell some of the anger over this particular sore spot would be appropriate.
If you were ok with lame, un-original, rehashed magazine copied ideas, then you should have told us up front.
In addition, there are a number of comments where people have found my entry and are informally advising me to seek legal advice in case that one wins, such as this:
If the original submitters of the two ideas I mentioned—“Wireless America Initiative” and “Civilian Works Corps” are reading this, you may want to consult attorneys and take SEIU to task for violating its own rules and causing you to forfeit a chance at the cash prizes.
Scott, if I was in your position, I would already have spoken to an attorney. We are talking about 100k here. Not some air miles. Since I live out in the country, my only access to a faster than dial up connection is via wireless. At least your idea covers that, even though it is available.
First off, I'm not going to sue. I like the SEIU and the last thing I need to do is waste hard working peoples union dues on lawsuits for an idea that was built on the ideas of others. Maybe if this guy wins we can guilt them into using the money to start a PAC to support politicans who would work for this (which is what I probably would have used it for anyhow), but that's up to them.
Now, as for the merits of the idea. There are four major arguments against it that I have been seeing and I would like to address them – because I do still think it was an appropriate entry and I would like to see it win. The arguments are :

1. It is not an original idea

A National WiFi network is not a commonplace suggestion. I have never heard any party or any politician mention anything close to this save Andrew Rasiej and some of the other Muni WiFi people – but those were municipal, I was asking for a federal initiative. It is quite possible that some magazine has mentioned it but it is certainly not some obvious, rehashed public policy idea – even in San Franscisco when we're just talking about Muni Wifi, people are both unfamiliar with the idea and ignorant of the most important possible benefits. Even on Slashdot, people talk of national wireless networks run by geeks – small bands of open networks, not single signon and not full coverage. People think that I'm talking about free internet access – I'm not. I'm talking about infrastructure – building a network that is publicly owned that business can build products and services on – without each one having to build their own.
However, that being said – I understand the problem. Though I don't think it is commonplace, it is certainly not revolutionary nor something others have never thought of. Had I won, I would not have kept the money to reward myself for my oh-so-brilliant idea. I simply think it is something that is far more important than is being considered by actual politicians and I wanted to see it win so it would get some attention by people who were listening.
I also thought it was good in that context of the SEIU. Countering offshoring is a major concern for unions and building a strong national wireless infrastructure would be far more effective at combating that than the hundreds of “ideas” I saw entered that suggested vicious protectionism.

2. Verizon already offers this

This is confusing, but an important distinction. Verizon offers cellular broadband access over their cellular network. It's basically a modem that uses a cell phone for connection – it is not WiFi. The difference is subtle but crucial. If you have 10 devices that want to be network enabled, with cellular technology you have to have a seperate account for each one – that is a $50/month access fee for each one. With WiFi, you have a cheaper device, higher bandwidth, and all 10 devices can access the internet on a single account. If you are a small device manufacturer, that is the difference between a viable product and never getting off the ground.

3. Private industry already doing it

The only thing I've heard of that ever came close to suggesting this was Cometa Networks, which was back in 2002 and was supposed to be finished by 2004. It obviously never happened. What we have now is a pathetic hodgepodge of private networks based in coffeehouses and bookstores across the country. You cannot take your laptop with a wireless card almost anywhere in the country and expect it to get a signal (and if it does, expect to actually have an account with the private company that happens to own that network).
There are rumors that Google is trying to do it and have already offered to wire San Francisco for free, but the possibility that they will want to do that nationally is pretty bleak, and I would rather it be publicly owned. That is not to say that private industry would get screwed – I envisioned more of a single payer model – private companies build it out and maintain it, but it is publicly owned and one account gets you one anywhere. Then medium and small businesses that could never have existed can become employers and everybody wins.


This post is too long, so I'll end it. I think that the SinceSlicedBread contest was a great idea and I'm sorry people are so angry over it. Perhaps the SEIU will offer a database download of all the ideas and someone else can do a community ranked system of good ideas for another use. In the end, the contest and website itself – with it's community input and institutional response – was probably the best and ultimately most important and lasting idea of all 20,000 they saw.
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