Muni Wi-Fi: Next Big Thing--Or Next Tech Boondoggle?

Three California cities serve as case studies in what works, what doesn't, and what's still unknown.
When you dial the offices at Curt Pringle & Associates, the mayor's P.R. consulting firm (he says, laughingly, that Anaheim is "the largest city in America with a part-time mayor"), the hold music is Frank Sinatra singing "Come Fly With Me":

Once I get you up there, where the air is rarefied
We'll just glide, starry-eyed
Once I get you up there, I'll be holding you so near
You may hear angels cheer ... because we're together.

It's a sexy come-on, filled with gauzy promises and vague images of paradises. With starry-eyed mayors and city councils betting on Wi-Fi to do everything from promote economic development to read water meters, the lyrics sound a bit like the rationales for municipal wireless networks.

Anaheim's Mayor Pringle: Leave the headaches to someone else -- Photo by Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
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Anaheim's Mayor Pringle: Leave the headaches to someone else

Photo by Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images

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The promised benefits stem from the marvel of mesh networking technology. Mesh networks are self-configuring, meaning that setup and maintenance costs are low while reliability is high, and each access point or node in the mesh serves as a relay, reducing the need for expensive gateway routers to propagate the signal over long distances.

The technology, however, is imperfect. Wi-Fi runs on the unlicensed 2.4-GHz spectrum, so interference is a problem and always will be. Foliage and tall buildings get in the way, and Wi-Fi has a hard time penetrating walls without signal-boosting antennas on the premises.

Wi-Fi vendors and city fathers are still trying to figure out how such projects should be structured. Is muni Wi-Fi a public utility, like water and power? Is it a massive economic-development effort to bridge the digital divide and bring opportunity to disadvantaged residents? Is it a purely private enterprise, as in Anaheim, or some hybrid of all of the above? So far, all these models are being tried, and none has shown itself to be a clear winner.

City managers can remain neutral on Wi-Fi or "take the lead" in pushing Wi-Fi to its potential, says Craig Settles, a wireless networking consultant and author of Fighting The Good Fight For Municipal Wireless (Hudson House, 2006). Anaheim's laissez-faire approach is an example of the former. On the question of whether EarthLink can sign up enough subscribers to succeed, Mayor Pringle says, "Candidly, it's not my job" to worry about that.

Anaheim's philosophy, says Settles, can be summarized as, "If it's successful, that's fine. If it's a failure, that's fine. Have a nice day."

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