Muni Wi-Fi spirals downward

In 2006, as we first started educating people about the merits of M2Z’s plan to build a nationwide, free, wireless broadband network, many skeptics suggested that the broad deployment of municipal Wi-Fi systems would reduce the appeal of M2Z.

To the contrary, we suggested that muni Wi-Fi projects would only work in limited circumstances and that the vast majority of American cities would not have the technical, financial, and human resources to deploy, maintain, and upgrade such projects — so M2Z could be a readily available nationwide alternative.

Today, the hype is clearly gone from municipal Wi-Fi projects. Anyone watching the headlines over the past couple months will notice a pattern — plans for large ambitious projects to cover a city in Wi-Fi are stalling or being shelved. The concept that an open, unlicensed ecosystem with no financial champions or sustainable business model could somehow be converted into a city-wide (often free) and easily accessible service is flawed. The headlines and reports in the press speak to the problems:

Cleveland rethinks citywide Wi-Fi (Nov 7: MuniWireless)

Cleveland, Ohio, Mayor Frank Jackson has announced the city will reject bids requiring anchor tenancy and focus, instead, on a “phased approach” to deployment.

Cleveland is the latest in a string of cities that have balked at making anchor tenant commitments. Anchorage, Alaska, Toledo, Ohio, Portland, Oregon, and Corona, Calfornia have had similar reservations.

Comment: “Anchor tenancy”ensures that someone pays for continued use of some part of the network, thus providing investors with incentive to build the network.

Reality check finds Wi-Fi city is full of holes (Nov 5: Sacramento Bee)

Sacramento’s effort, like many around the nation, is struggling for financing, as The Bee reported last month. But even in Mountain View, where technology leader and Nasdaq fat cat Google has built a system to blanket the city with Wi-Fi coverage, the network rarely penetrates walls.

“It will cost a lot more than most cities had planned to build a network that provides robust, consistent indoor coverage,” added Glenn Fleischman, editor of Wi-Fi Networking News.

Plano scaling back plans for free wireless Internet (Nov 3: Dallas Morning News)

Stoked earlier this decade by the prospect of free Internet at little expense, the dream of installing citywide Wi-Fi here and elsewhere has collided with high installation costs and other market realities.

Those dynamics have forced local governments in North Texas and beyond to take a hard look at their efforts and have dispelled assumptions that such projects come easy or free.

On a separate front, telecommunications firms have lobbied against free citywide coverage in an effort to protect their market shares.

A proposal put before the Legislature in 2005 would have included Wi-Fi in an existing statute that prohibits municipalities from offering certain telecom services. That bill died in committee.

Comment: Interesting to note that the telecommunications firms are working to lobby against the competition.

Vindu’s View: Wireless Silicon Valley getting little support (Nov 4: San Jose Mercury News)

The fate of Silicon Valley’s ambitious but troubled project to blanket the community with wireless Internet services now rests on a single question: Does anyone believe in the vision enough to invest $500,000 for two pilot sites that would show us what the network can do?

But government officials – wisely – aren’t going to pledge taxpayer dollars until they see some proof that the project is more than just a dream conjured up by the optimists at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, the public-private group that is spearheading the project.

Comment: This is certainly one of the more ambitious projects falling by the wayside and no doubt ironic that it’s happening in the heart of one of the innovation and venture capital centers of the country – Silicon Valley.

Rush for municipal Wi-Fi runs out of steam (Oct 29: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

So is muni Wi-Fi dead? Not yet. But “there’s been a reality check,” said Sally Cohen, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “And it all stems around, ‘What’s the business model, and who’s going to pay for it?’ “

AT&T Scales Back St. Louis Wi-Fi Plan (Oct 27: Associated Press)

AT&T Inc. has scaled back its plan to blanket the city’s 62 square miles with Wi-Fi signals, the wireless Internet service now found in airports and coffee shops.

Instead, AT&T said Friday it will build a Wi-Fi pilot project in the downtown core and expects to have it in service early next year.

“It’s a setback,” said John Sondag, vice president of external affairs for AT&T Missouri. “We’re disappointed. But we will still learn something.”

S.F. Wi-Fi plans lost in a fog (Oct 24: RCR Wireless News)

After more than two years, a plan to blanket San Francisco with seamless wireless Internet access at no cost to consumers is back where it started. All that stands in the wake of the failed citywide Wi-Fi effort now is a mountain of paperwork.

Once considered by many cities and towns to be the roadmap to offer high-speed Internet access for all, wide-spread use of the unlicensed technology is now less certain.

San Francisco’s deal was already largely considered dead in late August when EarthLink Inc. rescinded its proposal to cover the estimated $14 million to $17 million cost of building the citywide Wi-Fi network.

EarthLink, which was planning to team up with Google for the municipal Wi-Fi network in San Francisco, fired 900 employees following the news, including Don Berryman, the executive who led the company’s municipal Wi-Fi division. It closed offices in Orlando, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and San Francisco, and also said it will substantially reduce its presence in Pasadena, Calif., and Atlanta.