Municipal Wireless: Down but Far from Out

Carl Weinschenk

The troubled times for municipal wireless continue. This Associated Press story, posted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, details the problems of the project in Philadelphia, which once was pointed to by proponents as a sign that municipal Wi-Fi had arrived.


The story says the Philadelphia project has been beset by problems, most stemming from its association with EarthLink, the troubled ISP that is a contractor to that project as well as builds in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere. This week, EarthLink said that it would stop investing in these networks and that it is considering "strategic alternatives," which is a euphemism for a potential sale.


The answer to the question of whether the problems of municipal Wi-Fi go beyond the breakdown of EarthLink is, of course, yes. The EarthLink situation can be seen as a symptom rather than a cause of municipal wireless's decline. The bigger issue is the basic miscalculation that originally drove decisions: The first wave of these projects was based on a wish to provide low-cost or free broadband access to the underprivileged and the belief that shoppers, tourists and others would generate enough revenue to foot the bill.


This is an easy-to-read InformationWeek story exploring the problems besetting municipal Wi-Fi. It discusses the Philadelphia situation, but was posted before EarthLink pulled the plug on its efforts. There is no big news in the piece, but it does a good job of telling the tale of a good idea gone bad.


One of the biggest problems, the author points out, is that the original concept was made to order for politicians. They attached themselves to it because it sounded great. The writer also reinforces the notion that the common wisdom now is that the only way to save municipal Wi-Fi is to redo the business model focusing on government and business uses.


It didn't work, of course. But there is good news: American telecommunications offers second chances. The idea of universal connectivity and broadband everywhere is still as attractive as it was a few years ago. The new model for doing this is focusing on providing real services to first responders and businesses, which makes a lot more sense.


Psychology will play a big part in this. A while ago, municipal wireless was seen as a panacea -- hence the rush to roll out projects. Now, backers must not overreact and reflectively stay away. It is good to see there are some successes and that progress -- perhaps subtle and behind the scenes -- continues.


Viable approaches are emerging. For instance, cable operator Bresnan Communications is running a trial in Billings, Montana. While it isn't technically a municipal play, it adds up to about the same thing as far as users are concerned. The cable industry, this Trading Markets piece says, can be a municipal Wi-Fi player by leveraging its existing infrastructure. The point here isn't whether cable will become a major player. It's that models exist besides the one that has failed. New technology will play a role too, as WiMax and other powerful technologies begin superseding Wi-Fi.


These are not good days for municipal wireless services. The bottom line is, however, that the game is far from over. Municipal wireless clearly can rebound and play an important role in the overall telecommunications infrastructure.

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