Municipal WiFi: What Would You Do?

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Russell Senior of, a watchdog website that tracks the mis-steps of MetroFi in Portland, points to an Oregon Public Broadcasting interview with MetroFi CEO, Chuck Haas, last week (MP-3).

It was interesting to us in that we finally heard a (still incomplete) justification that indicates the basis of their ~30% coverage claim. He said it was based on a population weighting, claiming that 150,000 out of 540,000 people had access to the service. He didn’t get into any details of the assumptions that go into the 150,000 people number.

We have previously estimated that on a spatial basis their existing network covers only about 4.2% of the 134 square-mile city’s outdoor areas to the “90% probability of a connection to a 30 mW client device” standard. Our estimate is based on our recent survey of the SkyPilots we did in December, and a 300-foot coverage radius that we found during our testing of the Proof-of-Concept network last spring.

To get to 30% on a population basis, roughly speaking, you’d have to assume that the population density of the covered areas is twice as high as the city as a whole. We wonder if that’s true. also mentions a Portland Mercury article (an alt weekly), that casts doubt on the longterm viability of the MetroFi network in Portland.

The two notable quotes are:

“We’ve been trying to contact Haas, in order to redefine the relationship, but he’s been difficult to get a hold of.” — Logan Kleier


City Commissioner Dan Saltzman […] has said that MetroFi’s conduct has been “regrettable,” though he will allow the project “a quiet path to termination”

I believe in “free” municipal wireless. But WiFi infrastructure seems awfully expensive when you get past 200-300 nodes. Too many backhauls. Too much to go wrong. Maintenance of thousands of nodes seems impractical for big cities and problematic in outlying residential areas.

But technology (and markets) can change. Evolve. Turn on a dime.

For example, if iPhones and Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) become popular, then city-wide WiFi — especially with location-based advertising — may become a money maker. Coverage might also be enhanced with 802.11n beamforming — even unlicensed “white spaces” in the 700 MHz band.

Wireless Philadelphia construction is now at a near standstill as Earthlink tries to find a buyer according to MuniWireless. Construction has stopped in Portland with less than 30% of the town covered. What now?

Don Park, my partner in DailyWireless, thinks the city of Portland ought to take it over and contract out services to groups like PersonalTelco. PTP already maintains hundreds of (truly) free hotspots in coffee shops and residents all over town.

I like the idea of public/private partnership. A partnership with MetroFi, Microsoft, Clearwire, transit agency TriMet, and the city of Portland might deliver city-wide service — free.

Only high traffic areas (perhaps 30% of the city) would get WiFi nodes. Other areas could get Mobile WiMAX — free — with Microsoft’s Side Guide. Without advertising, Mobile WiMAX service might cost the same as MetroFi’s Ad-Free WiFi service — $19.95/month. Speed would be limited to 1 Mbps. For $40/month, you might get both 1 Mbps service and a Nokia Web Tablet or Eee PC.

WiMAX can cover large areas more cost/effectively, but Wi-Fi has market penetration. Combine their strengths. Everyone benefits.

I’m convinced there’s a solution. What’s yours?

Posted by Sam Churchill on Sunday, March 9th, 2008 at 8:31 pm .

One thought on “Municipal WiFi: What Would You Do?

  1. Municipal wireless seems to be a difficult thing to organize top-down.

    Why not promote consumer-owned and maintained mesh networks by WiFi, WiMax or other similar technology (or a multi-radio mix of technologies) where all the municipality has to do is to provide access to the larger internet. The mesh will take care of allowing everyone to connect to the access points provided by the city/community.

    De-centralize – it’s really the most simple way to navigate around the cost and technical issues of municipal wireless.

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