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The value of citywide networks may be for future providers, not current users

February 20, 2007

3 Min Read
What's Muni Wireless Good For?

As the debate over the EarthLink/Google municipal wireless project for San Francisco drags on in City Hall and in the local press, wireless-broadband consultant Greg Richardson, head of Civitium (which has helped draft the RFPs for many cities' WiFi projects, including San Francisco's) has weighed in with a blistering-yet-clearheaded blog post. Richardson says, essentially, that ideology has triumphed over both business sense and the common good in not only San Francisco but other cities building or considering municipal wireless networks.

At this point it's probably worth asking the question, "What are these networks good for anyway?"

The stated goals are obvious: economic development through advanced communications infrastructure, improved government efficiency, and greater equality of opportunity via technology (i.e., "bridging the digital divide").

It seems clear that, at least so far, only the second -- better government services thanks to mobile workers equipped with always-connected devices -- is a lock. Whether Plains, Ga., or Peoria, Ill. -- or even Petaluma, Calif. -- will attract new businesses and high-tech workers because they can offer a mostly reliable, nearly broadband-speed, outdoor wireless connection is a highly dubious proposition. It's mostly the civic equivalent of cup-holders in cars -- "We've got to have them because [insert rival carmaker here] has them!"

As for the digital divide, most networks now in deployment are finding that offering a free, residential service is either financially unrealistic or technically infeasible or both. And, at any rate, providing free Internet access to families who a) don't have computers and b) can't afford the customer-premises equipment to bring the signal indoors is an empty symbolic gesture.

Ultimately, the real value of the municipal WiFi networks spreading like algae across the land may be in their efficacy as testbeds for mobile infrastructure, applications, and services.

That's the conclusion of a new report from Oakland-based wireless consultant Craig Settles, head of Successful.com, who notes that "Government spending for mobile technology is outpacing small and medium-size enterprise (SME) spending, and this validates local governments’ potential value to suppliers." In other words, who else is going to pay you to put up WiFi mesh networks of 10, 25, or 50-plus square miles?

Even in cases like Portland, where networks provider MetroFi Inc. is footing the bill, the private entity has guarantees like free or low-rent access to city-owned infrastructure (i.e., lampposts) and "anchor tenant" provisions from the local government to make the build-out economically viable, at least in theory. (See Rollin' on the River.)

As muni wireless expert Glenn Fleishman, editor/publisher of WiFi Networking News, says about the huge Wireless Silicon Valley effort, "The project has emphasized public safety and personal access, but it was clear from the get-go that every form of wireless will get a work out, with Cisco and IBM having the opportunity to build systems that they could then sell worldwide."

This has happened before, with other communications technologies: Samuel Morse gave the public demonstration of the telegraph in 1838, but it took $30,000 in Congressional funding for an experimental line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore to convince the public, and investors, that the new system had a future.

The municipal systems now under construction are just that, experimental, and while their short-term value to today's consumers and businesses may be limited, their long-term worth to the network suppliers and providers of tomorrow will be incalculable.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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