Seattle has officially pulled the plug on its broadband network, reports Brier Dudley of the Seattle Times.
Since 2004, residents were tantalized by the prospect of affordable, fiber-optic service that would offset the near monopoly of Comcast and boost creativity, collaboration and innovation.
The closest Seattle came was a meager test of public Wi-Fi service along a few blocks in Columbia City, University Way and downtown parks that began in 2005.
Last week the city literally pulled the plug, ending its “community wireless service” April 29.
Municipal Wi-Fi is easier to build than fiber broadband, but it’s still been a mixed bag, says Dudley. Over the past decade, cities across the country tried offering free Wi-Fi through public-private partnerships that largely failed. Phone and cable companies are trying to protect their lock on broadband, by passing state laws blocking or preventing municipalities from offering Wi-Fi or broadband services. The laws have passed in at least 19 states, according to Muninetworks.org.
Now wireless carriers are trying to coopt free WiFi by incorporating it into microcells as a “free” service (if you’re a subscriber). Cablevision’s extensive Long Island WiFi network was one of the first regional networks but Verizon and AT&T are also rolling out “hot zones” of WiFi in large cities across the country.
Ruckus Wireless and its integration partner SmartWave Technologies, has been selected by the City of San José to supply advanced Wi-Fi products and services for the public Wi-Fi network initiative. The new outdoor Wi-Fi network, initially being deployed in dozens of downtown locations, will cover San José’s business district, allowing the city to offer free high-speed Wi-Fi services. The new high-speed network will be capable of supporting tens of thousands of simultaneous users and hundreds of terabytes of aggregate traffic.
San Jose, a city of about 1 million, intends to offer high-speed Wi-Fi throughout its downtown, covering an area of 1.5 square miles by the middle of this year. But unlike earlier municipal Wi-Fi initiatives, the San Jose system will be able to pay for itself entirely by helping the government do its job.
The network will support a myriad of new applications such as high-definition video, parking meters and digital parking guidance signs, video surveillance, and traffic signaling. The network will also play a key role in offloading mobile data traffic from congested cellular networks and will be used to backhaul data traffic to the Internet.
In the middle of the past decade, ambitious projects in several cities, including San Jose and Portland, promised to blanket outdoor areas with Wi-Fi and provide built-in sources of revenue. Browser-based advertising or small-business use would help to pay for equipment and operations. But the vision of Wi-Fi enabled cities didn’t happen.
The cost for reliable coverage rose from $65K-$100K per square mile, as free WiFi became increasingly popular in coffee shops, taverns and homes. The increased noise floor also reduced the range and effectiveness of municipal wireless. Soon, commercial 4G providers such as Clearwire and cellular carriers delivered more reliable service, indoors and out, sealing its fate.
Today some believe free municipal wireless networks may get a second wind utilizing “white space” radios that can deliver 10-20 times the range of WiFi networks.
Others believe the cost of wireless networks will go down as the 120 MHz of 2.6 GHz spectrum – owned by Clearwire and Sprint – becomes activated with TD-LTE nodes. Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft all stand to gain with ubiquitous, low cost wireless broadband. They may do what needs to be done to make it happen.