Thursday, June 12, 2008

Municipal Wi-Fi

I've written before about this little experiment in socialism going bust. Now, another one bites the dust, big time:

The free municipal Wi-Fi dream appears to be coming to an end for a handful of Bay Area cities.

MetroFi, a Mountain View wireless provider that had built its business largely from advertising-supported Wi-Fi networks, is just over a week away from pulling the plug on its nine networks including Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, downtown San Jose, Foster City and Concord, part of a larger pullback due to a lack of revenue.

The big lie in socialism is that you get something for free. You'll pay for everything. Is it worth anything to you to pay so that someone can access the internet from a park bench?

9 comments:

allen (in Michigan) said...

Oakland County, Michigan has a system that's stalled at the pilot stage with several municipalities covered but nothing approaching the 104 square miles and several million people that were originally planned. Turns out costs were significantly higher then at first realized and revenue opportunities overestimated.

Fortunately, the county's exposure consists mostly of several employees full-timing on the project and making country facilities, like building high-points and the county fiber network, available to the Wifi network. So the county isn't out a ton of money. But in other government systems the city, county, township, was the principle and they're taking it in the shorts.

Ubiquitous, ultra low-cost wireless would be nice but I guess we'll have to wait for the technology to advance a bit more.

Anonymous said...

It's the touchy feely sense of entitlement. Some folks think if they buy a cup o' coffee that they can remove shoes, get comfy and table camp for a couple of hours surfing the net.

Eric W. said...

I wouldn't really classify this as a socialist experiment. These networks were set up because us geeks want the internet to be anywhere and everywhere, not because poor people can't afford to pay for internet and the government should be forced to pay for the service for them. MetroFi is a private company receiving subsidies from the city, just like when the Maloofs wanted help building the new arena. The focus is on expanding the internet's reach and being always wired in, as opposed to social justice and the egalitarian dream.

Robert said...

Are these municipal wifi experiments failing because the idea is inherently non-viable, or because the implementation is poorly managed? It seems to me like it should be easy to cover a city with cheap wifi -- the Meraki wireless routers are cheap and easy to distribute over reasonably large areas, for example. If a city can provide running water to its citizens, which is a lot more physical resource intensive than wifi and therefore more expensive, then why not wifi?

Not that I'm saying it's a good idea, but I just can't figure out why more towns can't seem to make it work for them.

Anonymous said...

I'll back up Eric W on this one. This isn't socialism. It hasn't cost the cities a dime (unless the cities were very stupid). This is more an example of businesses misjudging their target market.

I'm with you on disliking socialism, Darren. But this isn't it.

[And it isn't *MY* fault you don't have foreshadowing ... :-)]

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"Are these municipal wifi experiments failing because the idea is inherently non-viable, or because the implementation is poorly managed? It seems to me like it should be easy to cover a city with cheap wifi -- the Meraki wireless routers are cheap and easy to distribute over reasonably large areas, for example. "

I think the problem is that very few people actually want/need wireless bandwidth in the middle of the street.

Indoors (e.g. at a coffee house), the *local* wireless goes to a wired connection. Mostly the same for inside a house.

There is thus not much demand for outdoor, random access. This makes it difficult to charge for it ... a very large access charge and most people decide that they can wait. A low access charge and you go out of business.

Additionally, the Muni WiFi seems to have the same problems that most computer buses have ... the effective bandwidth is essentially fixed, so if more people try to use it, then the useful bandwidth drops for everyone. This discourages high useage ...

I suspect that if the local cities actually *did* have a monopoly, then this could be made to work (poorly ... but it would work), but baring that I don't see much of a business opportunity even though the technology is okay.

-Mark Roulo

Ellen K said...

Wow, if people are this bent out of shape because free wifi isn't really free, imagine how ticked off they will be when they discover the same thing holds true regarding "free" healthcare.

allen (in Michigan) said...

There's a number of problems with municipal wifi, technical, financial, even historical.

The modest footprint of wifi reduces the problem of bandwidth hogging since there are necessarily a relatively few users per node.

Against that is the cost per node which is still pretty high and the fact that coverage is impacted by interfering buildings and vegetation. Also against wifi is the fact that wifi is a pretty elderly technology by current standards and its bandwidth isn't really up to current and future demands. Streaming video was *not* the norm when wifi was developed.

A municipal wifi system also competes with the extant broadband vendors and as competition has heated up the cost of broadband has come down/performance gone up. That creates a performance "ceiling" that muni wifi has to achieve before it'll garner enough support to make the revenue models work.

But the direction of things is clear: costs down, performance up. It's just a matter of how fast things occur and the recalcitrance of the impediments.

If I were a betting man I'd give odds (OK, small odds) that bandwidth will be free within five years that's how fast the technology's moving.

Eric W. said...

If I were a betting man I'd give odds (OK, small odds) that bandwidth will be free within five years that's how fast the technology's moving.

That's if we can keep net neutrality.