Municipal Wi-Fi Seeks to Shrug Off its Troubled Past

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The adage that a war plan doesn't survive the first shot also is true of municipal Wi-Fi. While there are some exceptions, municipalities are scrambling to recover from their initial business plans, which were famously ill-conceived.


Indeed, things are bad for municipal wireless when The New York Times takes time from seemingly more important topics to slam it on the editorial page. The editorial discusses a plan for a 750-square-mile project on Long Island. The tone of the editorial is set by the use of pejorative "hatched" to describe the genesis of the idea. The bottom line is that the system initially was to be built without tax dollars. It now is way behind -- and the company that Nassau and Suffolk counties signed to create the system seems to only marginally exist.


Municipalities are in full scramble mode. Officials in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Milpitas, Calif., voted to take control over their municipal builds, which were controlled by EarthLink, which is getting out of the business. PC World provides the background on each of the networks and describes what the future looks like. The commonality is that both communities see a future in municipal Wi-Fi under a revised business plan featuring free public hotspots and government tenants.


Actually, it's unfair to say the entire sad saga of municipal Wi-Fi was due to poor planning. Poor timing also had something to do with it. When many of the original plans were set, it was not yet apparent that commercial services in public venues would be such a big play. The fact that Wi-Fi became common in airports, stadiums, coffee shops and other venues took a big chunk out of the inherent rationale for government-provided services. The growth of 3G and mobile browsing also hurt.


Not all the news is bad for municipal Wi-Fi, however. This Minnesota Public Radio story, for instance, describes a largely successful project in Minneapolis. The piece says the project has its share of stumbles, but none seem out of the normal for any large commercial undertaking. The biggest difference between it and the other projects -- besides the fact that Earthlink isn't involved -- is that a more sensible business model features the city as an anchor tenant.


Indeed, there even is an EarthLink success story, of a sort. The success is the clever way in which the city reacted to the provider's corporate meltdown. Houston is using $3.5 million of the $5 million default payment it received to create 10 bubbles of coverage in low income areas of the city. Eventually, the areas between the bubbles will get service and the entire area blanketed.


This opinion piece at Datamation's IT Management says that the Houston plan is misguided and will end up not fulfilling its goal of providing services to low-income residents. The logic of the piece is suspect. That's not the point here, however. The main takeaway is that the commentary provides a reminder that the next swing the planners take at municipal Wi-Fi must be more realistic -- but must not forget the original, laudable goal of providing services to the poor neighborhoods. The bottom line is that execution -- not intent -- was the problem the first time around.