Municipal WiFi stalling in America?
August 31st, 2007

San Francisco’s city-wide WiFi has stalled out, and Chicago’s is meeting a similar fate. The lead for Houston’s project is paying the city $5 million “to buy a window of time to figure out what to do next”. St. Louis has hit a big snag. Lompoc’s network growth is far lower than it should be. Even Toledo is cooling it. Earthlink, a major player in this field, has been losing customers and spending hugely, and is now cutting jobs and restructuring itself. Is American city-wide WiFi in a crisis?

Reasons are varied, but start with the steady (if slow) growth in consumer broadband adoption, combined with the growing cost of rolling out an urban cloud. Engadget (source of this image) describes this succintly as “there’s no business model.” “[T]he numbers do not add up,” said The Economist, back in April. Additionally, there might not be enough of a collective sense about the value of WiFi. Moreover, the complexity of cities funding private companies’ project can add delays to timelines.

The news isn’t all grim. Getting pieces of big cities connected by volunteers is one way. Small cities might have an easier time, too. Some cities might be better positioned for city clouds, too, if they have the right culture or topography (for example: Portland). Focused projects with clear pricing and ROI can work:

the most successful municipal broadband projects typically involve a municipal department (police, public works, etc.) deploying a key application (public safety, video surveillance, automated meter reading, etc.) that delivers a clear return on investment. Corpus Christi (Texas), Buffalo (Minn.), Phoenix (Ariz.) and Providence (R.I.) and many other cities have thriving municipal broadband networks running government applications.

Meanwhile, the number of projects under way or under consideration continues to grow:

MuniWireless estimates Wi-Fi networks have either already been built or are under consideration in 455 cities and counties across the United States, up from 122 two years ago.

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