by Carlo Longino

Filed Under:
chicago, muni wifi, san francisco

at&t, earthlink

Muni WiFi Takes A Beating

from the weak-signal-strength dept

Municipal WiFi's been having a rough time lately, as the ridiculous levels of hype that built up around it comes back to bite it in the backside. Things have taken a turn for the worse over the past week: EarthLink's deal with San Francisco (which garnered tons of hype) now looks like it's dead, while its deal in Houston looks like it's dying as the company pulls back from muni WiFi altogether. Meanwhile, city officials in Chicago have dropped their plans to get a vendor to build a citywide network there, after balking at demands that the city become the network's anchor tenant, and guarantee certain payments to the vendors. Elsewhere in Illinois, AT&T has decided not to move forward with plans to build a muni network in Springfield.

All in all, it's not been a good week for muni WiFi and its backers. But does all this bad news spell doom for muni WiFi as a whole? Perhaps -- but the idea of municipal wireless in general still could hold some value. Muni WiFi is bound to fail when it's being judged by unrealistic expectations -- as so many muni networks are. Vendors and politicians have whipped up a frenzy around the networks, while a willing media lapped up the stories and fed them to an easily excitable public. The fact remains that there are plenty of useful applications of municipal wireless; delivering widespread public internet access, and making money from it, may simply not be one of them. Also, as we've stated before, WiFi -- a local networking technology -- may not be the best technology to use for covering large areas. WiMAX could hold some promise in this regard, while in terms of muni broadband in general, fiber is probably even better. And, as Rick Martin points out, many smaller communities are seeing more success with their muni WiFi efforts, an indication that smaller-scale installations are much more workable than huge citywide installations in places like Chicago and San Francisco. He also passes along the quote that muni WiFi is "the monorail of the decade" -- meaning it's the boondoggle du jour for local politicians. But as Martin also notes, that while the monorail has never really lived up to its hype as the solution to cities' public transport ills, the concept and some of the technology has lived on in the form of light rail and other transport projects. In the same way, while muni WiFi might be looking pretty poorly, the idea of municipal wireless, or municipal broadband, should live on.

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  • identicon
    RickT, 31 Aug 2007 @ 6:07am

    Is it too early...

    for "I told you so". I pushed against these networks in my local city (Miami Beach) and elsewhere and I constantly challenged the bloggers (muni wifi, muniwireless etc) and supposed experts with a list of major deployment issues that seems to be exactly what is occurring.

    This multi-rail (poor mono-rail simile) public transportation to the internet is a great idea on paper, but anyone with the experience of deploying wi-fi of any significant scale knew this was a dead horse before anyone got in the saddle. Good luck to the taxpayers left holding the bag and I hope they remember who frivolously wasted their money.

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

  • identicon
    cjmemay, 31 Aug 2007 @ 8:31am


    "as so muni networks are" ?!??!

    Awful, Carlo! Awful!

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

  • identicon
    Jasmine, 31 Aug 2007 @ 8:44am

    Half a loaf?

    Maybe there's a middle ground somewhere. Los Angeles now has free wi-fi at all of their city library branches (which anyone with a laptop or web-enabled cell phone can access without signing in or signing up for any service) as well as stocking every branch with dozens of internet-connected PCs that can be used for two hours a day by anyone with a library card.

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

  • identicon
    VoicesInMyHead, 31 Aug 2007 @ 8:45am

    Lost the F7 key again...

    If F7 doesn't bring up Spelling & Grammar checking, you could have a friend proof read your stuff. There could even be some commas and hyphens left over for the rest of us. :p

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

  • identicon
    Ex IT Guy, 31 Aug 2007 @ 10:03am

    Muni WiFi

    I used to be the IT Director for a mid-size city in the northeast. Everyone wanted us to jump on the Muni WiFi wagon. From the very start I said it would be best left to the private sector. I'd have been willing to partner with a private firm (or a group of entities) in terms of offering locations for hardware (light poles, city buildings/property, etc), but I never thought the government should be in the ISP business. Did it have some potential to stimulate the economy? Perhaps. But was it really a feasible plan in terms of finances, maintenance, administration, etc? Hell no! Who wants to pay the cost for all the hardware, just to have to update and/or replace it every time the standards change? Government is way too inefficient to implement and maintain such a project. If the private sector wants to take a shot at it, then godspeed. The gov't already has plenty of places to flush away tax dollars!

    As an aside though, the one place I did see real value in a city-wide WiFi network was for public safety services (police, fire, etc). There are a lot of great applications in that line, such as high-speed connectivity for mobile data terminals for police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, etc. Would be great for interdepartmental collaboration in emergency management situations.

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

  • icon
    Instructor (profile), 31 Aug 2007 @ 10:07am

    Plenty of "hotspots"

    Just about every public library in the DFW area has WiFi, many with no restrictions and on 24/7. Just about every McDonalds restaurant around here has unrestricted WiFi. I've even seen many mom-and-pop restaurants advertising free WiFi. Starbucks still makes you pay for a subscription, but that may be on the way out, as the competition mounts.

    Unrestricted WiFi is getting to be pretty much ubiquitous without any special effort to implement a muniWiFi. So what was the point again?
    www.chl-tx.com Texas Concealed Handgun License Training

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

  • identicon
    Flipsy, 31 Aug 2007 @ 10:54am

    Light Rail?

    God help us all if the next version of muni WiFi is anything akin to light rail. Worst money pit ever, and they keep expanding it whether anyone uses it or not. What a sad, billion-dollar joke.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Sloth, 31 Aug 2007 @ 11:12am

    Warning: Idealism here.

    Municipal wifi is probably not the wave of the future--wifi is just not suited to supporting a city population. Besides, how would it be paid for, increased taxes? Sucks for the lower-income urban populations who can't even afford a computer!

    In cities with existing fiber networks, though, I'd like to see the city lease the fiber and provide service at a reasonable buy-in rate to businesses and private citizens. A stipulation or a discount for businesses to provide free wifi on that connection would achieve nearly citywide wifi anyway, without forcing the city to maintain access point hardware or taxing those who can't afford it.

    #5, the existing model for broadband in most cities is a monopoly or near-monopoly of one or two giant companies fixing prices, restricting connection use, and generally exploiting their customers. This is exactly the sort of area local governments should step in and control.

    #6, this differs from the existing (so-called free market) model in that the businesses aren't being charged an arm and a leg by a monopolistic private provider who gouges them for the privilege. On the contrary, they'd get perks for sharing their connection with their customers.

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

  • identicon
    Reed, 31 Aug 2007 @ 1:20pm

    Wifi is the way to go

    It is a no brainier that wifi is far cheaper and easier to setup than a land-line network. If every major US city had free municipal wifi, then where would the providers of communications be? How easy would it be able to start making phone calls to all your friends for free? Why would you pay for Internet?

    The real reason municipal wifi isn't taking off has nothing to do with logistics and everything to do with people who make billions of dollars every year who are very against the whole idea. In the end, this type of wifi would replace all internet, phone, and probably even cable TV as well. This means that although it would be an enormous public good it is going to meet a huge amount of resistance.

    As far a technical feasibility of such a network, I think we are clearly capable of developing a system like this even for the densest of populations. Keep in mind the SR-71 spy plane project was conceived of even before the materials to build it, such as titanium, were even invented. Where there is a will there is a way and this project seems trivial compared to some of the amazing thigs we have created.

    We are really standing at a crossroads of a society that can either free itself or enslave itself with technology.

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

  • identicon
    pissed off native, 31 Aug 2007 @ 7:32pm

    don't forget Milwaukee!


    3 of the state 'lawmakers' got paid 88K in bribes^H^H^H^H^H^H campaign contributions by Ameritech^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^HAT&T to forbid local governments to make local networks.

    City of Milwaukee pulled dark glass fibre in its right of ways - and never made a map. So they claim they want '1 million dollars' so they can document where the fiber pulls are - but if you look for the blaze orange paint you can see the pulls as you walk the streets.

    A 'minority owned firm' wanted to 'provide WiFi' for the entire city - provided they got the contract to use the dark fiber the city had already placed....but did not document.

    Midwest Fiber Networks has shown themselfs to be a toothless paper tiger-cub. And really, with state law - forged by AT&T - to prevent "government backed" networks....is any other outcomes to be expected?
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:officia l&hs=JSI&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=milwaukee+wifi&spel l=1

    ( Joe would like to see the dark fiber lit up under a co-op model where any one/corp who pays the 'entry fee' is equal to anyone else. Thus if Time Warner pays the fee, they are the same as little-guy-provider who paid the same fee.)

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

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