February 21, 2006
So many WiFi hotspots dot the major metro areas of the United States now that it's a minor outrage to walk into a coffee shop and find that they don't offer free wireless connections. Enterprise use of such free wireless zones has pretty much been limited to road warriors and freelancers using hotspots as their temporary offices. Now, though, it seems that offering a citywide broadband network, for use by individuals and enterprises, is becoming a competitive advantage for metropolitan areas.
The City, London's financial district, will be saturated with WiFi coverage within six months, according to officials there. New York's financial district is to follow suit later this year. Last week, officials in Chicago said they would issue an RFP for a citywide WiFi network – an effort that Heavy Reading analyst Tim Kridel says may run into obstacles because of the abundance of WiFi hotspots already available in downtown Chicago. More than 500 hotspots already blanket the Windy City, according to WiFi directory JiWire, making it the third most unwired city in America behind New York and San Francisco.
How these networks will be funded is up in the air. As reported on Unstrung last week, some vendors are rolling out ad-supported muni networks – raising questions about the willingness of users to tolerate pop-ups and additional banners in return for a free connection. (See Hotspot Invaders.)
Most of the free metro networks are WiFi, but some cities have found that fiber-to-the-premises is worth the investment, as well: Using casino revenues, North Kansas City, Mo., is establishing the first municipally owned broadband utility in the state, breaking ground last November on the network it's calling liNKCity. Unlike most citywide WiFi networks, it's by no means free – businesses will be charged $200 a month for the high-speed version – but it's a milestone, because the town had to beat back lawsuits from private vendors attempting to prevent the spread of municipal networks.
The advent of citywide WiFi, of course, could make such monopolistic efforts from the telecom industry moot. Will enterprise users be able to truly benefit? That remains to be seen. But I'm betting that enterprising enterprise IT managers will find ways to piggyback on these proliferating networks. And you can count on Unstrung to cover the unfolding story of muni WiFi.
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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