Muni-WiFi Delays... And How They Will Be Mis-Interpreted

from the uh-oh dept

This post may tread a fine line, meaning that it's probably going to upset a bunch of people on both sides of this issue, but I guess that's what they get for thinking an issue only has two sides. First, to make things clear: city-backed broadband is an idea that can make sense -- and certainly does in quite a few cases. Usually, that's because there isn't real competition in the broadband marketplace, and the local government feels the need to step up. Obviously, some governments will screw it up -- but others have shown that it can be done successfully in a way that can really help a community. That said, it doesn't mean that muni-broadband is right in every situation. It's a little worrisome that some cities suddenly seem to think they absolutely need to offer muni-broadband to be considered a high tech city. However, even worse is the fact that nearly everyone has started thinking about muni-broadband in terms of a single technology: WiFi. WiFi is a wonderful technology that has done amazing things -- but it was built for local area networks, and stringing it out to cover entire cities is simply asking for problems.

For years now, we've been trying to remind people that WiFi probably isn't the best technology for this sort of thing -- but it hasn't done much good. However, because of this it shouldn't come as any surprise to hear about towns that were so excited about their muni-WiFi projects talking about "indefinite delays" because, frankly, nothing works the way they expected it to: "We still are not getting the coverage we expected and we are not getting the network performance we expected, it's all over (the city). There is no pattern." That's the word from Lompoc, California, which once got glowing coverage of its muni-WiFi plans, but where that WiFi may never get very far. Also, it's likely that things would only get worse if the network were fully loaded, with lots of people using it. The unfortunate part of this story, however, is that anti-muni-broadband forces, usually bankrolled by incumbent telcos, will quickly latch onto this story to suggest that all muni-broadband fails. Of course, as Glenn Fleishman pointed out just days ago, when it looked like Lompoc was on its way to launching the WiFi offering, the real goal of the city is to offer muni-fiber. The WiFi was just supposed to be a stopgap that apparently isn't doing very much at all. None of this, of course, means that muni-WiFi simply doesn't work at all -- but that it's unlikely to be the best technology solution in many, many cases.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
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  2. identicon
    lar3ry, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 6:51am

    Why just the bad news?

    Muni-wireless works! For proof, check out to see how Manchester, NH is doing it. Of course, our sister city in the UK is also doing it at ...

    Focusing your stories on the places having problems and not on the places where it is working works against the entire idea.

    Now, it's not a panacea, and these and other muni's could use more help.

    To me, fiber doesn't seem the right way to go; it's useful for connecting the repeaters, but wireless is great for getting from the repeaters into the homes (and increasingly, cars!) since you don't need to be hooking up wires/cables/fiber everywhere.

    Put a wireless card in your PDA and never have to pay the absurd prices that the cellular networks are charging for their limited offerings. Laptops are a natural extension as well, and having a wireless-wireless repeater in your home to serve up a local subnet shouldn't be all that difficult.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Don Redden, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 7:28am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    We have sucessfully put in a Muni-WiFi network in Moorhead Minnesota. We were motivated by the lack of low-cost broadband for our residents. It can work we have around 96% coverage. We had a lot of growing pains but all is working well now. I agree with your post.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    The Other Mike, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 7:42am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    Muni-wireless works!
    That was never in debate. The issue was if it works for every given problem.
    Focusing your stories on the places having problems and not on the places where it is working works against the entire idea.
    That's the point. It's not right for a LOT of places. Simply repeating the mantra for it won't make it any more viable for a lot of places. People who want to see it have convinced so many townships that it is the wave of the future that they are endangering the very existence of the ones that are good ideas. We all know what happens to a fad once it is out of style. So the point here is to try and seperate the technology from some popularity contest that will relegate it to a closet somewhere for the next 20 years.

    At least that's the way I read it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    RevMike, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 7:56am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    Muni-wireless works!
    That was never in debate. The issue was if it works for every given problem.
    Maybe it would be better to focus it down a little. Muni-wireless is a great idea, but Muni-WiFi has its flaws.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    denacopoliez, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 8:10am

    Other Avenues?

    Just a point to ponder, and I question that I have had for some time. Are there not other ways to do the Muni-Wireless than WiFi, isnít there other technology in existence that has better coverage and a more larger bandwidth than the existing "popular" product? I donít mean to be the Naysayer but if there isnít a product that exists, should there not be one? I love my WiFi for the house but in any other capacity it just seems way to small to accomplish a task. My parents bought a new home and we had to make a 78í CAT5 run to the attic so we could put the Wireless router up there so all the house had coverage, so much for ďwirelessĒ I said in the attic on an 95 degree day!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    David, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 9:57am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    How does a wireless card in your PDA help you if you are not with in range of a wireless router? Cellular is all we have out here in the rural areas. I would love to not pay for broadband cellular but its all we got.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Mike (profile), Jan 11th, 2006 @ 10:35am

    Re: Other Avenues?

    Are there not other ways to do the Muni-Wireless than WiFi

    Yes, there are other ways, though each have some issues as well. If WiFi could really be made to work consistently in a fully loaded situation it would be great -- because there are no spectrum costs and so many people already have WiFi cards or chips in their computers.

    Other technologies will mostly require licensed spectrum and for users to get special network adapters -- which may make it prohibitively expensive.

    There will certainly be more options down the road, and muni-wireless can work out -- but people rushing in and thinking WiFi is the definite answer are risking serious disappointment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Mike (profile), Jan 11th, 2006 @ 10:38am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    Muni-wireless works!

    Ugh. This was exactly the response I was worried about. Yeah, it's quite possible to set up some WiFi and have it work -- though there are a lot of things to be worried about, including interference and how much load the network can take.

    I thought I was pretty clear in making the point that I wasn't saying muni-WiFi never works, but just that it's not this perfect solution everyone is making it out to be.

    I wasn't "focusing just on the problem cases." In fact, if you read my post, I point to a number of success stories with muni-broadband, and I've made it clear I'm a supporter of muni-broadband -- but think that many are taking it too far.

    I agree that wireless has the potential to be much better than fiber, but I don't think the technology is really to the point yet that people seem to think it is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Smorriss, Jan 11th, 2006 @ 10:57am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    Having just gone through the effort of building a business plan for a WIFI network covering a small rural municipality, I can tell you that there are many problems with the technology and the business economics. The problem is bandwidth allocation. When you have a population of a few thousand users in a rural area, the cost of implementation is near 100k per thousand. Fiber carries more initial costs but it scales much cheaper. WIFI fits only when you have no alternative.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Erick Erickson, Jan 12th, 2006 @ 6:44am

    Muni WiFi

    Very well said. In fact, in addition to sometimes being a disrupter to innovation by stifling competition, municipalities have it in their head that municipal wifi can attract business. In fact, many businesses want high speed internet, but in the form of fiber optics, not wifi.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Arthur Blank II, Jan 13th, 2006 @ 7:38am

    Re: Why just the bad news?

    We have a business plan for WISP programs in rural areas that may be of interest to you. Our costs are dramatically lower than that which you quoted. Of course, we are using WiMax technology for point to multi point as well as back haul coupled with a WiFi mesh. That may be the financial difference.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    John, Jan 13th, 2006 @ 8:36am

    False Opposition?

    A thought:

    Most of the discussion here (or at lesast the part which doesn't take wireless to be the whole universe) opposes wireless to fiber.

    Better to take them as complementary.

    Fiber, where politically and economically feasible should be the first choice. As noted it is cheaper at high bitrate/high population density situations that will overwhelm wireless systems--especially those based on unliscensed bandwidth. Do fiber first and you have the potential for practically unlimited backhaul for the wireless and so can provide userse with the full capacity of the badwidth they'd be occupying rather than the anemic speeds we see in practice. With backhaul infrastructure already taken care of a muniwireless addition to a munifiber system is truly cheap. The combo covers all the bases and potentially ameliorates most of the problems associated with mesh distribution. Got a big apt complex or dense project? Drop as many directly fiber connected nodes as you need to make the density/speed tradeoffs work.

    Fiber and wireless shouldn't be opposed. Fiber funds big bandwidth and it funds wireless mobility. The denser the population and the higher the bandwidth demands the more you should prefer a fiber first solution.

    Or so it seems to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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