Municipal Wi-Fi 2.0

As large-scale, for-profit projects falter, innovative new models emerge

Municipal Wi-Fi is dead. At least in terms of the model whereby cities award an exclusive contract to a service provider, who builds a citywide mesh network and hopes to make money selling broadband to consumers.

But municipal Wi-Fi is also alive and well in a variety of other incarnations, including municipally owned networks deployed for specific purposes such as public safety, viral nets put up by nongovernmental entities, and imaginative efforts that combine wireline and wireless technologies.

The initial promise from both wireless advocates and Wi-Fi equipment vendors was based on the fact that inexpensive Wi-Fi radios were relatively easy to deploy. The technology seemed to offer a way to bring mobility to city employees, create an inexpensive alternative to wired broadband Internet access (and to cellular data services), and extend high-speed access to people who weren't offered it by incumbent providers or who couldn't afford it.

In the 2004-2006 time period, scores of municipalities of every size were writing up requests for proposals for something that had never been deployed before: large-scale, Wi-Fi mesh networks.

The results have been disappointing. Many large-scale schemes have collapsed, stalled, or entered a Twilight Zone of uncertainty.

"It's pretty clear that 'free Wi-Fi' was an unrealistic expectation," says Stan Schatt, vice president and research director at ABI Research. "What's happened is that the early business models didn't work. They weren't realistic."

Unproven business plans, technical limitations and occasional political conflict created a mutually reinforcing downward spiral. And many of these issues remain to be resolved in any future wireless deployment.

Municipal Wi-Fi 1.0: What went wrong?

Following the lead of Philadelphia, the preferred model for many was a public-private partnership that was familiar, since it was a variant of cable TV licensing. Glenn Fleishman, journalist and editor of Wi-Fi Network News, calls this "municipally-authorized Wi-Fi."

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