What Ever Happened to Municipal WiFi?

Wireless Antenna

Wireless AntennaEver since I became an iPhone user more than two years ago, I’ve found myself afflicted with an obsession shared by millions: Where’s some WiFi? Since I now expect to connect not only to my e-mail accounts but also to the entire Web via my phone, I want that WiFi, and I want it now. It made me take a quick look around to see where I have found WiFi recently.

  • My house: It took half an hour on the phone with Cisco to get the router going, but yes.
  • My mother’s house: Her cable guy installed it. Too bad she forgot the password.
  • My neighborhood: A few nearby parks have it, but the signal tends to be weak and slow.
  • Bed and breakfast, coastal Maine: Score! I made sure it would be there before I traveled.
  • Airport lounge: Usually, if you get the little card that reveals the password.
  • On the plane: I’ve done it with Delta, and it worked great… for a price.
  • Argentina: From wine country to the jungle to Buenos Aires, I was impressed. Virtually every hotel offered it for free, as did more cafes than I could ever hope to patronize. I was far more connected in Buenos Aires than I could ever hope to be on the typical New York street.

A few years ago when I researched the topic of municipally provided free WiFi for a magazine article, the folks at MuniWireless.com had found 92 citywide WiFi setups, most small, plus 40 deployments for public safety use and 215 more under development. Flash forward a couple of years to June 2010 (the most recent count) and the 92 had grown to 110, but there was still no critical mass and no excitement.

The problems are many. For one thing, local leaders can’t agree on whether to control such projects themselves, outsource everything to an ISP, or create some kind of public/private partnership. Earthlink, which had won contracts for Atlanta, Chicag and Houston, walked away from the projects when it saw the numbers on its efforts in Philadelphia, where installing hotspots turned out to be more expensive than planned. Around that same time, AT&T dropped a St. Louis project. So while some cities have had some marginal success, and while companies like Google sponsor some hometown coverage as a sort of goodwill generator, most of us have little WiFi to connect to as we walk down the street.

When you think about it, Google’s Silicon Valley environs should be the perfect place to get a massive WiFi effort up and running, right? Wrong. A consortium/think tank called Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network has been talking about it for six years, but nothing has happened. One problem: Silicon Valley is made up of 44 cities, each with own government, budget, agenda and lawyers. So it’s hard to expect much movement there.

Local leaders love to talk about “WiFi in every spot,” and they can wax eloquently about the supposed economic and social benefits that come from turning an entire city into a WiFi hotspot. Voters, too, like the idea, usually voting yes when no price tag is attached, which is what happened in San Francisco a few years back.

One school of thought says that government should go ahead and deploy for itself first, enabling WiFi technology to get things done (think smart parking meters, security cameras and police communication). Only after that is working and upgrade paths seem clear should the city then expand the system out to the local citizenry.

But maybe the real problem is that technology may make the whole debate moot. In the end, the cell phone providers may deliver on the speed promises of all their new technologies (4G, anyone?), and even laptop luggers — who today find their way to the library, the café or the WiFi-enabled park — will have 4G or “broadband anywhere” dongles on their systems. The rest of us will just cling to 4G smartphones to stay connected. The problem: Those connections aren’t free, and therefore can’t provide the kind of social leveling and supposed productivity benefits that access to everyone would deliver.

It’ll be fun to look at this issue again in five years. What’s going on where you live?

Photo: Wikimedia

Comments

2 Responses to “What Ever Happened to Municipal WiFi?”

June 23, 2011 at 7:33 pm, Nadir said:

Hi,
A very nice article and thought provoking. A friend who works for Intel and went to a city where they are heavily based mentioned about getting a wimax dongle from Intel and being able to have internet everywhere even on the streets.

Another example, California especially northern California is paying a lot of attention to smart grid which intends to make the various regular devices intelligent like the oven, microwave , refrigerator etc to be able to run a smart grid. So surely the government has to figure out a way through public private partnership to make that happen since smart meters have already being rolled in multiple metros in California. Definitely a good debate.

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June 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm, Ian Dutton said:

I have been thinking about this problem for several years. on the municipal gov. side schools and libraries seem to be the most successfull starting places for these projects. on the comercial side several shopping malls have free Wi-Fi. as we all know it is more than sticking attenas everywhere, permissions must be set (teachers and students should get priority on a school connection over general public) while we are aware of the cost benifits, i doubt this will happen untill we come out of the finacial crisis, and maybe not even then.

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