U.S. cities are jumping off the municipal wireless bandwagon

When the municipal Wi-Fi craze started a couple years ago, I was skeptical about both the technology and the economics of what was being planned, even though I liked the idea of ubiquitous wireless Internet access and making it free at reduced speeds. At Interop Las Vegas this spring, I was surprised to see how many niche products and companies had popped up around municipal Wi-Fi, especially since the concept was still unproven. However, over the past month, plans for municipal wireless networks in a variety of prominent U.S. cities have either experienced major setbacks or fallen through altogether.

Big questions

Here are the two big questions I've had about municipal Wi-Fi since the first plans were announced:

1.) Considering the customer service experience of most government utilities, would I ever really want a municipality to be my primary Internet provider, even if there was a partnership with a private company?

2.) In big cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, it was going to take more than a year to pull off huge deployments of WLAN access points, mounted to street lights in most cases. By the time those deployments were completed, WiMAX would be ready for prime time and would be able to cover 30 miles with a single tower. Would WiMAX make these huge WLAN mesh networks obsolete by the time they were completed?

Things fall apart

Philadelphia was one of the first big cities to jump on the municipal Wi-Fi bandwagon. The first stage of the Philadelphia Wi-Fi deployment was rolled out earlier this year, but covers only 15 square miles, so it's still a long way from having all 135 square miles of the city covered. San Francisco's plans for municipal Wi-Fi deployment fell apart last week, and no alternatives are on the horizon.

Earthlink, which is also running the Philadelphia Wi-Fi project, backed out on the San Francisco deployment because it admitted that it is having a difficult time making the economics work for municipal Wi-Fi. Earthlink was betting on muni Wi-Fi as its big ticket out of the withering dial-up business, but the strategy is quickly falling apart.

The same week that the news broke about San Francisco, Earthlink also had to pay a $5 million dollar penalty to Houston for missing the deadline to begin its Wi-Fi rollout, and the company announced that it was laying off 900 workers (half its staff), closing down multiple offices, and no longer looking to launch any new muni Wi-Fi deployments. Don Berryman, who was running Earthlink's municipal Wi-Fi business unit, had already left the company in early August.

On August 28, Chicago announced that it was also abandoning its city-wide Wi-Fi project. Throughout the Windy City, AT&T is now offering 1.5 Mbps DSL for $20, and a 700K connection costs just $10 for new sign-ups. Plus, before the end of 2007, Chicago is going to be one of the first cities in the U.S. to get a comprehensive WiMAX network, powered by Sprint's Xohm WiMAX service.

The future of widespread wireless Internet

Lots of vendors are lining up behind WiMAX. In addition to Sprint-Nextel, there's Intel, Samsung, Motorola, ClearWire, and many others. For more on WiMAX and its arrival in 2007 and 2008, stay tuned over the next three weeks because I am going to have several reports on the progress of WiMAX and the plans for immediate future.

As for the state of municipal Wi-Fi, we should keep in mind that Earthlink was a major player but not the only player. Successful muni Wi-Fi deployments have already taken place in London and Toronto, as well as a variety of smaller U.S. cities. While it may too early to sound the death knell for muni Wi-Fi, it is increasingly looking like an impractical option for most big cities. New ideas and solutions will need to be explored for widespread Internet access and bridging the digital divide.

What do you think about the viability of municipal wireless? What do you view as the best ways to achieve widespread Internet access and/or to help bridge the digital divide? Join the discussion.


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.


Jason, First let me say that cities like Philly were in so early that the equipment was not up to the task. Philly got sold a bill of goods. I continue to see this even today, in other markets. There are few vendors out there who can actually pull city wirless off. We are currently watching a South Texas city installing a wireless network specifically for cameras. It has no chance of working as the throughput of each node is a quarter of what is required for a single camera! Sad, but true. You cannot expect city commissioners to be able to select equipment reliably, much less hire the right IT professionals to make those decisions. Not their fault. Equipment vendors must sell product, whether working or not. They will make any claim necessary, hoping to correct it in the next software update. Unfortunately, cities are gullible and get taken. A really good outside consultant could eliviate these multi-million dollar disasters. When in a city built correctly, all your apps work splendidly. Your IPhone latches on to a fat pipe and brings down that movie in a snap; none the worse on your battery life. The US is lagging way behind. It will emerge. We have been using WiMax/WiFi hybrids for two or three years, with huge success. Viability is not an issue. The right equipment is...


Take away the stupid "free" business plans and then drop the cost per mile from $150K to $5K and think it through again. Throw in a few cameras here and there and the savings in vandalism alone covers that capital expenditure cost in the first year. Add in force multiplication for police, reduced theft of copper in light poles or on city property, cameras on work trucks so supervisors can watch city workers doing their jobs, SCADA, and I'm thinking that it's a whole new ballgame. To enhance the opportunity, WiFi at that price point could easily provide $5.95 to $29.95 wireless in areas that are paying $40-$$60 per month for wired service. It probably won't deliver that same level of bandwidth but it's also a lot cheaper. Our systems have delivered as much ast 20Mbps or more but realistically most users would have between 256K and 5Mbps as a practical cap based on pricing. Our company and others have designed and deployed these types of systems so it's not a fantasy. It's time that municipalities review technology again with companies that understand, "free" is not a business plan.


providing "free" internet access however, the question arose about who will pay the provider if the internet access is to be free. There is a cost to the city from the provider. The resulting tax that the city would have to impose on business or homeowners to pay for "free" internet access was prohibitive and residents and businesses were against any new taxes. There weren't any benefits to providing "free" internet access for the city except added costs to the city. BTW it was Earthlink that proposed the plan.


Surely not taxpayers. If I lived in Philly outside the accessible area, I'd be having a fit about paying someone else's wireless bill. Municipalities shouldn't be in the wireless business. Everybody uses water and sewer. Even if you don't use a park, you don't have to have any special equipment to access it. Providing wireless access provides a benefit to the computer-owning "haves" at the expense of the non-computerized "have nots". If a city wants taxpayers to foot the bill for Internet access, it should pay for more hard-wired desktops in public libraries.


My podunk city (whole county = 50K people) has been considering this. It's easier to know the thinking that goes on in hallowed halls in a small town like this. I can tell you the push for muni wifi is far less than savory. There's many factors, but they all boil down to graft, corruption and of course there's ALWAYS a "law enforcement" angle in everything anymore... Fortunately the project is dying on the vine. No one ever really came clean with how it would be paid for. All talk was about nebulous "benefits," such as making this backwater town look like it's ahead of the tech curve somehow. As if building a muni wifi was going to entice a couple fortune 500 co.s to move their HQ into town or whatever. cat

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