06:03 PM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin

End Nigh For Muni Wi-Fi?

The news this week -- EarthLink's retrenching, Chicago's decision to shelve (not "review," not "delay for more research," but "shelve" as in can, eighty-six, disavow all knowledge of) its prospective citywide network, and of course the usual posturing out of San Francisco -- would seem to indicate that it's difficult to divine signs of vit

The news this week -- EarthLink's retrenching, Chicago's decision to shelve (not "review," not "delay for more research," but "shelve" as in can, eighty-six, disavow all knowledge of) its prospective citywide network, and of course the usual posturing out of San Francisco -- would seem to indicate that it's difficult to divine signs of vitality in the municipal wireless market. But that's not entirely the case: Muni Wi-Fi is not dead; it's just going through a phase of, uhh, creative destruction.Consider some data points:

  • Reporting on its first year of supplying Mountain View, Calif., with free Wi-Fi service, Google says its network has about 15,000 unique users each month. "Since the beginning of 2007, traffic has grown almost 10 percent each month," the post by Google's "alternative access team" continues, "and the network now handles over 300 gigabytes of data each day, sent to over 100 distinct types of WiFi devices. Virtually the entire city has been taking advantage of the network, with 95 percent of the mesh routers being used on any given day."

    To be sure, Mountain View -- smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley, with high scores for laptop usage, per-capita income, and tech savviness -- is hardly your typical mid-American town. Still these are impressive, if not startling, numbers.

  • In Portland, Ore., progress on the Metro Fi rollout continues quietly, with steady growth and remarkably little political unrest. Again, Portland is probably an outlier, but it proves that this can be done with realistic goals, a workable business model, and political alignment.

  • Wi-Fi equipment vendor Tropos Networks, which I and others had predicted would be acquired or out of business by now, is not only still alive but claims to be enjoying strong growth.

  • In Houston, where EarthLink has apparently skipped out on its contract, leaving the city high and dry, the local ABC affiliate reports that the beleaguered company has agreed to pay $5 million as sort of a delayed exit fee.

    "If somebody comes up with a proposal to create a Wi-Fi bubble over the city at any time in the next nine months, we would be free to take them up on the offer and do that," Houston Mayor Bill White told the TV station.

    OK, that last comment was probably delusional. Houston and Mountain View, in fact, represent the two poles of muni Wi-Fi expectations and reality. Many observers are starting to describe a two-tier structure in which smaller, more contained communities like Mountain View (and Corpus Christi, Texas, Apple Valley, Minn., and Lafayette, La.) can afford to build and run Wi-Fi networks while major metro areas like Chicago and San Francisco find the costs and the engineering scale prohibitive.

    Many of these smaller, less-publicized networks will be aimed at unglamorous city and regional services such as public safety and utilities, rather than blanketing the city with free high-speed access or bridging the digital divide.

    Beyond the fate of EarthLink, says Ellen Kirk, the former VP of marketing at Tropos who left last year to form a wireless networking consultancy, "The bigger question for me is, What does this mean for the big cities? If you're a midsize city of half a million people or less, you can wrap your brain around a smaller service provider that understands how to put a wireless network up for video surveillance or traffc management or meter reading. You can do all that math on a single piece of paper."

    "The projects where you can draw a shorter line between the network and the applications and the benefits, those will be fine," adds Tropos CEO Ron Sege. "If you're trying to build a network across a city the size of Atlanta, to be used for a whole host of applications, well good luck."

    Anthony Townsend, research director for the Institute for the Future, has called muni Wi-Fi "the Monorail of the decade" (thanks to sharp-eyed San Francisco wireless activist Kimo Crossman for passing on this quote). It's a keen analogy, in that monorails as a futuristic solution to all urban travel ills never got off the ground, so to speak. But the technology and the concept of monorails have found their way into viable, cost-effective, and heavily used light-rail projects around the world.

    So, while the land-rush era of municipal Wi-Fi is definitely over, the real-world laborious task of building workable networks with practical applications and viable cost structures in midsize and smaller towns across America is just beginning. Expect this phase to be longer-lasting.

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