St. Cloud Achieves 77% Penetration With Free Muni WiFi?

One of the benefits to not being beholden to either side of the Muni-WiFi debate is the ability to see both sides of the coin. On the one hand, we’ve argued loudly that WiFi, as it is (a, b, and g) is not the most appropriate wireless air interface for Wide Area deployment, but we’ve also sung the praises of mesh technologies. We’ve argued that there isn’t adequate competition for the last mile of broadband access in the USA, while also pointing out that the USA is a harder country to wire than Japan or Korea. Really, we’re just trying to get to the bottom of this debate, honestly. So now, we’re taking a look at some interesting usage data coming out of the free Muni WiFi network in St. Cloud, Florida. You may recall that we took a critical view of St. Cloud a couple of months ago, but this new data looks…well, pretty darned good.

The article reports 8,421 homes now served, an almost unbelievable 77% of the city’s homes. Most of the other data is, quite frankly fluff. It reports high usage from those homes as an average, but that number could be high because of five kids on BitTorrent 24/7. It also reports the average savings each home gets by ditching their ISP as $36.47, but that assumes they ditched their ISP, which isn’t claimed in the piece, which could mean that customers are keeping their DSL, and adding Muni WiFi – why not when it’s free?

The usage data, in particular, is used by the writer to show that the “free service” model is not dead, and in fact may well be superior to the “public/private” partnership model that is starting to dominate the scene. However, while the author takes the time to paint with one brush all critics of St. Cloud, saying that all these have ulterior motives, he also informs us that he himself is a paid consultant, employed to promote the “brand image” of St. Cloud. Because of his bias, and because we’ve been burned before, we’d like to have some independent sources verify the data. Also, it’s likely that because the writer is paid by the city to improve its image, we’re not going to see any negative results even if some exist.

I’d like to see a fair survey that actually asks the residents that have adopted the Municipal service questions like: “Did you leave, or are you planning on leaving your prior ISP because of the service?”, and “How would you rate the coverage…?”, and “How many users in your home have subscribed to the service?” In fact, I am willing to offer to Johnathan Baltuch and St. Cloud that I will conduct such a 10-question survey free of charge for them, and discuss the results in a public release. All I need is for them to provide me with a population sample to contact. Let’s see what the customers really think!

I also have questions about the 77%. Do 77% of households even have a computer, let alone a WiFi computer? If a tech-savvy household has 5 accounts on the WiFi net, does that count as one household, or does it ‘count’ as five. That would screw up the results if the survey is counting individual user accounts in the numerator, and households in the denominator. It’s tough to believe because a 77% adoption rate is similar to cellular phone penetration after 16 years.

But if the data holds up to verification, then that’s a hell of an achievement. If so, the “Free Service” model deserves to be reconsidered across the country. This is even more apparent if better air interfaces (the oft-anticipated WiFi ‘n’) come into play.

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