Municipal Wi-Fi Pioneer Asks, 'Where Is Everybody?'

The California town of Lompoc's wireless network is now complete, but only a few hundred people have signed up.
A city of 44,000 in the coastal hills north of Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Calif., is known for its adjacency to Vandenberg Air Force Base, its up-and-coming wine-making industry, and its restored Spanish mission. More recently, the town has also become known for having one of the one of the country's longest-running municipal wireless networks, a project begun way back in 2004 and completed last fall.

"This was something the city needed to do," Mayor Dick DeWees says from his sunny office in Lompoc's City Hall. "We're 20 miles off a major highway, and we have to do something to keep people in the Lompoc Valley so they don't have to spend two hours on the highway commuting to Santa Barbara. The wireless network is a first step."

Unfortunately, the citizens of Lompoc haven't quite caught on. Built by Pacific Coast Cabling and Siemens Communications using access points from Tropos Networks and Motorola Motomesh backhaul gateways, the city-owned network covers around 95% of the city's six square miles with high-speed Internet connectivity. Subscriber growth, however, has been slow: As of early May, the network had only 281 subscribers, far below the 4,000 needed for financial viability, according to a study by McKibben Consulting.

The main problem is competition. When Lompoc first considered a wireless network in 2003, half the town had no Internet access and the other half had unreliable and slow DSL service from Verizon. Now there's high-speed DSL available from Verizon as well as cable Internet access from Comcast.

Lompoc has responded by dropping rates from $20 a month to $9.95 for basic outdoor Wi-Fi hotspot service. That could boost subscriber numbers while reducing revenue per subscriber--leaving the city no nearer its goal of breaking even on the service.

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