Municipal Broadband Increasingly a Service Provider Offering

Carl Weinschenk

A few years ago, there was a significant interest in municipal Wi-Fi projects. As the name implies, these were municipal clouds intended to provide connectivity to help bridge the digital divide, assist municipalities in day-to-day operations and emergencies and offer general convenience to all.


The idea famously didn't pan out. The business cases were unsound and the assumptions wrong. The business-rechristened municipal broadband to include a broader approach than just Wi-Fi -- did make a bit of a comeback. The new approach was predicated on sounder business-first plans.


In the bigger picture, however, much of the rationale for a discrete municipal broadband business has faded. There are a number of reasons. For one thing, the ubiquity of 3G and the data plans it spawned eroded the market. The popularity of commercial public Wi-Fi-at coffee shops, airports and other common venues-took away another slice.


Carriers-who spent a lot of money trying to keep the municipal projects grounded-also are beating municipal projects by joining them. This week, Verizon announced a free offering for its subscribers in partnership with Boingo, a company with which it already does business. Wi-Fi Networking News is quick to point out the significant limitations of the offer, however.


Regardless of the experts' misgivings, the service is sure to score points with subscribers. Verizon is joining AT&T, Cablevision and others. The cable operator, for example, supports a huge Wi-Fi cloud that offers services to at no premium to subscribers in its New York metro-area service area. Indeed, Cablevision is being aggressive, with launches or expansions in Jackson, N.J.; Rockland and Orange counties, N.Y. and Macarthur Airport on Long Island just this month.


The landscape has changed significantly in a short time. At the start, municipal wireless was a big deal and was aimed at helping have-not upstarts battle the big carriers. Now, service provider clouds, which provide much the same service to end users, are throw-ins for existing customers. The era in which municipal Wi-Fi (or broadband) could be considered a potential competitor to -- or a strong bargaining chip for the locals against -- the Verizons and AT&Ts of the world is for the most part over.


There are successful municipal projects. For the most part, however, municipal broadband now is just another "sticky" application designed to make it less likely that customers churn to another provider.

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