Mixed News on Municipal Wi-Fi

Carl Weinschenk

AT&T isn't the same corporate entity that it was a decade ago. But it remains one of the big players, in both name and reality. That's why it's worthy to note the launch of its first metropolitan Wi-Fi service.

 

The operational portion, so far, is modest, according to the Telephony Online story. It's three square miles of a planned 55-square-mile network in Riverside, Calif. The network will provide municipal connectivity and offer residents and businesses free services at 512 kilobits-per-second (kbps), and 1 megabit-per-second (Mbps) for $7.99 a day or $15.99 a week.

 

The story points out that AT&T has 47,000 hotspots worldwide. The difference is that this is the carrier's most ambitious effort to link them. The second half of the story starts unraveling what undoubtedly will be the key going forward: precisely what the network is good for, what it isn't, and how it can be combined with other AT&T assets.

 

The possibilities are tantalizing. The Telephony Online piece points out that the signals -- at least in Riverside -- don't permeate buildings, and that the company is looking at the best ways to integrate the network with its digital subscriber line (DSL) infrastructure. The piece concludes that the recently launched iPhone, which is only available over the AT&T network, potentially can be a demand-driver for such networks. The carrier's fiber U-verse infrastructure and coming WiMax technologies also should get a lot of attention from AT&T planners, though they aren't mentioned in the story.

 

The arrival on the scene of big, multi-technology players such as AT&T changes things considerably and should be considered good news for the metro Wi-Fi category. Not all the recent news has been as positive, however.


 

For instance, this PC World story says that the big San Francisco project is encountering a good deal of opposition. A couple of votes -- one in the Board of Supervisors and the other in the Budget and Finance Committee -- have been delayed. The story does a good job of describing the challenges to the project, sponsored by EarthLink and Google. The takeaway is that these builds rarely enjoy smooth sailing and, indeed, have to traverse the same frustrating and complex bureaucratic labyrinth of other municipal projects.

 

This InformationWeek story also shouldn't be categorized in the good news category, at least by municipal Wi-Fi proponents. The piece, which outlines some of the inherent challenges to Wi-Fi, is based on a report from Forrester Research. It says usage is low overall, and many customers only employ the systems while at home. The piece further notes that service providers and cities are slowing rollouts and changing their plans in light of these trends.

 

A recently released study by Ipsos Insight appears to show at least some support for municipal Wi-Fi. The survey, here reported on at Marketing Charts, reveals that one-third of respondents would switch from their current ISP to a municipal service, with interest equally split between free and faster fee-based services among those currently with broadband services. A majority using dial-up would opt for the slower free services, the study revealed. Interest in the services is particularly strong among people who own wireless devices.

 

This Computerworld feature raises an interesting point, though not necessarily on purpose. The premise is that municipal Wi-Fi projects have difficulty as they move from planning to implementation. That, naturally, is leading to some rethinking of the projects.

 

Toward the end of the story, the executive director of the Cape Cod Technology Council comments that economic development depends as much on electronic connectivity now as good roads in the past. That suggests that the real strength of municipal Wi-Fi may be in exurban and rural areas. Businesses and residential uses in urban and suburban locales generally have more connectivity options.

 

In many cases, the physical and regulatory deployment challenges are greater in more densely populated areas. Conversely, folks in the hinterlands may depend upon such projects to attract and retain commerce. This makes these projects more likely to rein in bureaucrats.



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