Putting A Little Lipstick On Muni WiFi

Back in May, 2004, Municipal Wireless was still just on the drawing board, but a few towns and cities were about to lead the charge into using WiFi to meet their admirable goal of providing low-cost connectivity. At the time, I wrote about Chaska, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis that was launching their citywide network. I argued in Techdirt and in USA Today that WiFi would be the wrong choice for Muni Wireless because of range (it's a LAN technology) and interference issues, among others. My opinion was contrasted by Bradley Mayer, the city IT Manager responsible for spearheading Chaska.net, who was very optimistic about the planned network. By October, we were both again quoted in a CNN.com article in which I say: "I haven't seen a lot of what I would consider real successes yet [with municipal wireless]. More and more cities are announcing they're going to do [Muni WiFi], and I get concerned because I'm hearing more and more rhetoric that isn't consistent with the underlying technology." Mr. Mayer, in contrast, said, "So far, customers are happy with the city's Wi-Fi start". Accepting what Mayer said as truth, myself and others had to concede that smaller towns may prove us wrong on Muni WiFi. I actually spoke with Mayer in late 2004 as part of some private research I was conducting for a telco client, and he again portrayed the Chaska WiFi network as a glowing example of how Muni WiFi works well.

Flash forward to the present, and imagine how frustrating it is, then, to see Mr. Mayer admit, ex post facto, that Chaska's network was actually quite a mess. Of course, the Tribune article claims that that is all in the past, and now the network is great. Well, I'm sorry, but there is a credibility gap to address now. We were told it was "great" 18 months ago, but later we're told by the same person "It took about a year and a half before we felt we really had a good handle on the network." And according to Mayer's' boss, "The speed wasn't good, or they [subscribers] couldn't get on [the network]. Sometimes customer service was a problem. It was hard for us to staff up to meet peak times." There was an early 50% cost over-run to deploy more APs, and there has been a subsequent full upgrade to the next generation of Tropos gear. The city, not able to handle the maintenance of the network, contracted Siemens to do the task, and also has outsourced support. However good they claim things are now, it certainly looks like it was a disaster until just recently. And those are the real results from Chaska, a city that had all the advantages of manageable size, pre-existing links to the Internet backbone, ownership of the local power utility, low building height, and full utility pole access. But now, we're to believe the current network is great because they say so...again.

Mr. Mayer, who parlayed his Muni WiFi deployment experience in Chaska into a better job as the WiFi deployment expert at Earthlink, is quoted in the Trib as saying "there was a lot of pre-conceived notions that you could just blast [Wi-Fi signals] through walls and trees and everything." It might save a lot of money if Muni Broadband enthusiasts take a good hard look at WiFi vs. other options before deployment, instead of forging ahead on wishful thinking and pre-conceived notions.


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