Municipal Wi-Fi is dead says John Cox in a large review in Network World. At least in terms of the model whereby cities award an exclusive contract to a service provider and hopes to make money selling broadband to consumers.
But municipal Wi-Fi is also alive and well in a variety of other incarnations, including municipally owned networks deployed for specific purposes such as public safety and imaginative efforts that combine wireline and wireless technologies, says the article.
“It’s pretty clear that ‘free Wi-Fi’ was an unrealistic expectation,” says Stan Schatt, vice president and research director at ABI Research. “What’s happened is that the early business models didn’t work. They weren’t realistic.”
[Pay no attention to the fact that I’m posting this very story using Portland MetroFi’s free service]
Here’s a recap:
- Wireless Philadelphia; One year after EarthLink began building a citywide Wi-Fi network, the project is over budget and under performing, with unanticipated technical challenges and a flawed business model. EarthLink had to double the density of access points from around 25 per square mile to 42 per square mile. According to sources, only 3,000 residential customers have signed up – a paltry 1% penetration rate.
- Portland, Oregon: MetroFi, says it needs an infusion of cash to complete the 134 sq mile system (video), and now wants the city to become an anchor tenant. The city so far has said no, insisting that MetroFi has a contractual obligation to try to complete the network, now used by about 15,000 users per month. Portland spent more than $250,000 planning for the network and paying Logan Kleier, the city staffer responsible for overseeing the project.
- OpenAirBoston Regroups; Becomes Open. City leaders insisted they aren’t backing away from their ultimate goal of Wi-Fi in every corner of Boston. Instead, they said, they’re abandoning their original timetable to refocus on a series of neighborhood “bubbles” that test technology and business models.
- Corpus Christi, which sold their system to EarthLink is now getting it back. Rather than leave its Wi-Fi asset in the hands of EarthLink, the City Council opted to take back control and return the network to its original purpose–smart meter reading and other municipal services. EarthLink will not be forced to pay a promised $1.59 million, but the city will get roughly $3 million in equipment and upgrades.
Tempe, Ariz.: Passed through at least three owners in less than three years. The current owner, Globility, came to an impasse with its suppliers, and unplugged the network’s authentication servers. The city declared Globility in default of the contract and may declare the network abandoned.
- San Francisco’s WiFi Network never got off the ground. A Meraki network is developing in San Francisco, from its origin as a 1-square-mile testbed and is based on MIT’s RoofNet. Currently, the network covers about 2 square miles, and offers 1Mbps wireless connections, says Sanjit Biswas, Meraki’s CEO and co-founder. Meraki is funding the San Francisco deployment, as a showcase of what the technology can do. SFLan aims to build a wireless network with LAN characteristics on a metropolitan scale and are proposing a city-wide network that addresses low income users, in lieu of the pullout by Earthlink
- Dallas and Chicago are deploying wireless video surveillance networks in specific areas. ABI predicts this global market alone will grow from $16 billion today to $45 billion eight years from now.
- Wireless Minneapolis: About 85% of the city is covered with an 4.9GHz public safety band deployed. It is being used now by some inspectors and public works employees, and was widely praised during the Minneapolis bridge collapse last year. USI Wireless, found not all poles can sustain the weight and that electricity was only turned on by photoelectric cells at dusk, raising cost. Minneapolis (pop: 385,000), has signed up about 8,000 users, from roughly 175,000 households. A number of free-access sites and zones have been installed around the city and a portion of the profits go to a digital inclusion fund.
- St. Louis. AT&T’s wireless Internet network is up and running in one square mile of downtown St. Louis. Don’t expect to see a citywide system any time soon, though. More than a year ago, the company proposed a wireless network among the city’s 62 square miles, but AT&T and the city couldn’t find a cost-effective way to power the WiFi nodes. The citywide plan was nixed in October.
- In Grand Rapids, Clearwire is building a WiMAX network that covers all 45 square miles of the city with the city trading access to infrastructure in exchange for reduced rates for government and low income access. Clearwire only requires 10 to 15 towers to cover the entire town, versus some 25 WiFi access points per square mile for WiFi (about 1,000 devices). Do the math.
- Long Island’s wireless Internet project a $150-million Wi-Fi system to cover 750 of the Island’s 1,200 square miles without a dollar of taxpayer funds, is months past its initial target date and its future looks doubtful, says Newday.
- Azulstar a municipal operator in in Albuquerque and elsewhere, is now switching to the quasi-licensed 3.65 Ghz band for longer range with less interference. They’re using equipment from Airspan and Redline.
- Wireless Silicon Valley. The grandeous Wireless Silicon Valley vision of two years ago, reaching some 2.4 million people, was first scaled back to several test phases. Then, Azulstar, the startup that was to build and operate the network, couldn’t get funding even for two test networks, at about $500,000 each.
Sascha Meinrath, research director, Wireless Future Program, at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. public policy group, argues that 2007 showed the failure of the free market approach to critical infrastructure. Government has a traditional role, he writes, as the builders and maintainers of critical infrastructure.
Personal Telco Project (PTP) in Portland, is building a network from the ground up, using volunteers, Linksys or similar Wi-Fi routers reflashed with the WiFiDog software, and shared DSL or fiber broadband connections. They unwired the Mississippi neighborhood in north Portland.
Like Meinrath, PTP prez Michael Weinberg sees a synergy between community efforts and municipal policy goals. “What I’d like to see Portland do is get on the viral side of this,” he says. “There are hundreds of thousands of broadband connections [in the city]. We could unwire Portland tomorrow if enough people got on board.”
Wired Magazine has mapped hundreds of municipal wireless projects on Google Maps. Most are smaller cities and counties, where bureaucracies are less onerous and costs are lower. Here’s a pdf version (224k).
EzWireless knows a thing or two about networking. They designed and built a mobile, secure, broadband and web-based network covering 700 square miles in Eastern Oregon five years ago. It enabled local fire & police departments in seven cities, parts of three counties and two states. It’s the largest WiFi system in the United States — and the first. That system works.
According to WiFi Planet, Tropos works with a number of different vendors to deploy Automatic Meter Reading in its municipal wireless systems, including SmartSynch, Aclara, Badger Meter, Silver Spring Networks, and others. Aclara did the Anderson and Corpus Christi deployments, and SmartSynch is working with Burbank, Californias Burbank Water and Power on an AMR Wi-Fi network thats currently in the pilot stage, with a full deployment expected by the end of the year.
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