Muni WiFi: Not Dead Yet

Two bits of news have some media outlets putting municipal WiFi on life support.
by | August 30, 2007

Two bits of news have some media outlets putting municipal WiFi on life support. First, Chicago scrapped its plans for pushing citywide wireless internet access. Then Earthlink, muni WiFi's dominant vendor and biggest cheerleader, announced huge layoffs. Among those leaving the company is Don Berryman, who headed up Earthlink's muni WiFi division.

Does this mean muni WiFi is dead? Not exactly. Rather, what's dying is the dream that cities could reap the benefits of vast wireless networks for free.

Earthlink used to think that it could build and maintain citywide WiFi networks by charging consumers around $20 a month to use them. That model might have worked a few years ago when broadband access was sketchy and couldn't be found for less than 50 bucks. Not anymore. John Martin, the editor of Governing.com, tells me that it costs him less to get basic but reasonably fast DSL service at his house in the Massachusetts boondocks than it does to order a pizza. What Earthlink now admits is what many people have said all along: when it comes to WiFi,there simply aren't enough paying customers to float the boat for everyone else.

For cities, the end of something-for-nothing thinking is probably a good thing. Consumer access and vague notions about WiFi somehow fostering economic development were always the worst arguments for wireless anyway. The best argument for WiFi, as I wrote in Governing's May cover story, is that wireless might actually help government provide services better or more cheaply.

That was how Corpus Christi, Texas, got into WiFi. It wasn't because they fell for the latest vendor pitch or got caught up in the constantly changing business models of the WiFi business. Rather, they had a problem -- reading water meters was a time- and labor-intensive job -- and automated meter reading using WiFi was a way to do it faster and cheaper. In other words, Corpus Christi viewed wireless as an investment that would pay dividends in the form of government efficiency. The city later opened the network up to consumers but that was never the point. (Ironically, Corpus, which built out WiFi on its own, later sold its network to Earthlink -- I hope they cashed the check!)

Here are two more lessons from Corpus that I think resonate now. First, Corpus didn't go into WiFi because they thought WiFi was cool. They went that path because it was the best technology available at the time to solve their meter reading problem. With new technologies like WiMax coming along, WiFi's days may be numbered. By building a business case around wireless, rather than a fascination with any one technology that happens to be popular with consumers at the moment, cities can shield themselves a bit from the usual problems with obsolescence.

Second, Corpus built its network on its own. Not every city will want to do that, of course--or have a few million bucks in the bank to pay for it. But it can be done. As vendors in this business come and go and change their tune by the month, that's something worth remembering.

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