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Municipal Wi-Fi: A Promise Unfulfilled?

Cities around the country seem to be backing away from their promises of widespread, free municipal Wi-Fi services. Are they abandoning the idea of public Wi-Fi, or just retrenching?

My first experience with municipal Wi-Fi was disappointing. Two years ago, after finding out that a nearby town had covered its downtown area with free Wi-Fi service, I walked over to a coffee shop, ordered a latte, and powered up my PowerBook. No signal. I fiddled around with the Internet Connect utility a bit. No signal. I looked around, and noticed that there were some people working on laptops, and that most were sitting near the windows. I wasn't. So I walked over to one of these people and asked, "Are you able to get onto the Internet from here? I'm not getting a signal."

"Not right now," she said, "but sometimes if you sit right next to the window you can pull in a signal."

The town where that happened, Carrboro, NC, is one of more than 400+ U.S. towns, cities, and counties that have a municipal Wi-Fi project in some stage of development. To be fair, Carrboro, a densely populated town of 17,000 that borders Chapel Hill, isn't very boastful about its downtown Wi-Fi coverage; it's difficult to find a reference to it on the town's Web site. "Our plan has always been to build it out modestly," says Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton. "We've taken a very limited approach." The town spends about $10,000 a year on the network, with most of that money going to add another access point. Free Wi-Fi coverage is important enough to merit a mention or two in the town's 2006 "Economic Future" report. On the other hand, the network's official Web site hasn't been updated in more than four years.

"We don't want to overbill it," adds Chilton, who emphasizes that while municipal Wi-Fi was never intended to draw businesses to the downtown area, it does serve many in Carrboro's creative community, who use the public network to work outside on nice days.

The Dream Of Muni Wi-Fi
In some ways, Carrboro is representative of most U.S. towns and cities that have some sort of free municipal Wi-Fi network in the planning stages, already partially in place, or fully deployed -- usually in a limited fashion, or in a state of political or economic limbo.

Many people have heard of municipal Wi-Fi, either by glancing at a trade press headline or, if they live in one of the cities planning or implementing such a system, through the local media. It's the locals who know the most -- because city politicians first spoke directly to them, believing they would be the great (and grateful) beneficiaries of such systems, which promised free Wi-Fi access throughout a metropolitan area, and low-cost (or advertising-supported) high-speed Wi-Fi connections to houses and apartments.

Finally, you'd be able to sit in a park on a sunny summer morning, pull out your laptop, and get some work done without missing the good weather. You'd be able to replace your pricey cable or DSL connection with Wi-Fi that would be just as fast -- at about half the cost.

But recently some big, heavily-touted muni Wi-Fi initiatives, most notably in Chicago and San Francisco, have been cancelled, having been felled by a number of problems. The consultants and analysts I spoke with agreed that local politicians, seeking voter support, latched onto the idea a few years ago and made commitments prematurely. "It was a politician's dream," says consultant Craig Settles, "a 'chicken in every pot' type of promise."

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