What's the Future of Municipal Wi-Fi?

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Despite EartLink Inc.'s exit from the market, municipal wireless is alive and well in the U.S., mostly in small-to-midsize cities, and it's beginning to spread to Europe, said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless LLC, the self-styled "voice of municipal broadband."

In MuniWireless' "2007 State of the Market" report, released earlier this month, she said, "We estimated the U.S. wireless market would experience year-to-year growth rates of around 33% from 2007 through 2010." At that rate, the U.S. market for municipal broadband wireless, mostly Wi-Fi, including equipment and set up costs, will exceed US$900 million by the end of the decade. That is down from the 2006 projection, mainly because of EarthLink's withdrawal, but the market is still growing.

EarthLink, Vos said, was focused on very large cities and has pledged to finish its wireless project in Philadelphia. With its withdrawal, the large-city market has become quiescent, in part because projects the size of Philadelphia are beyond the financial reach of the vendors building the systems. "If you don't have the entire city of Philadelphia to cover, it's faster and easier to roll out," she said. "You also don't have the big city politics, as we've seen in San Francisco. Smaller communities don't have that dynamic."

Smaller Communites Lead the Charge

However, many smaller cities and even rural counties are going ahead with their own plans for municipal, public Wi-Fi. As of Vos' last count in August, 400 U.S. communities were in some stage of broadband service creation, from the pioneers with systems running to communities selecting a vendor. Many, she said, such as the farming community of Highland, Ill., are motivated by the lack of high-speed Internet connectivity or a lack of competition, allowing a single provider to charge high fees for services that many need for their small businesses and agribusinesses.

Initially, the economic model for municipal Wi-Fi installations was for the supplier to install and run the service on speculation. The municipality provided space on utility poles for the Wi-Fi antennas and received free access to the network. The vendor recovered its costs from a combination of fees charged to local businesses and private subscribers and advertising. That model proved economically nonviable and has almost disappeared, although WildFire Connections has announced that it will go ahead with an advertising-supported municipal Wi-Fi service in Concord, N.C., a city of about 56,000 people.

New Economic Model

Vos said the predominant economic model today is for the municipality to guarantee a minimum annual contract for municipal services to provide an economic anchor for the network. It then can sell excess connectivity to businesses and private individuals. She said that municipalities find this attractive because they can realize several benefits from municipal Wi-Fi with bottom-line efficiency improvements that save money in normal operations, as well as top-line service improvements, particularly to public safety and emergency services.

It's common, for example, for municipalities to install wireless water and sewer meters and eliminate the expense of sending out meter readers. Burbank, Calif., is taking that to the extreme, getting residents and businesses to allow the city to install wireless environmental controls in their homes and businesses in exchange for a discount on their electric bills. Burbank then can manage power use across the city to optimize use.

Public Safety is Job No. 1

"The No. 1 application that all cities want is public safety," Vos said. "Wi-Fi has more capacity than cellular digital, and second, it's cheap -- you don't have to pay Verizon every month for all those connections." In San Antonio, a municipal Wi-Fi pioneer, ambulances send live medical readings directly from medical monitors to the hospital via the Wi-Fi system as they transport the victim.

Police need to send information and photos. "In the aftermath of the Underground bombing in London, the police and ambulance personnel at the scene had no idea what they would find when they went into the tunnels," Vos said. "But people on the scene started taking photos and film clips with their cell phones and sending them to the police." These were forwarded to the first responders, who used the information to better focus their efforts, she added.

"Looking back over the last couple of years, the main lesson I learned is that when a city sets up a citywide Wi-Fi network, they have to look at it as an infrastructure that carries a variety of services and applications," Vos said. "They can't look at wireless itself as a service." Once it's available, it quickly becomes a necessity in people's lives. In large cities such as New York, she said, "there is a lot of free Wi-Fi available that all those people walking around with iPhones and iPod Touches can use. So if you want to go to a particular bar in SoHo and can't remember its name, you can Google it right on the street. Once you get used to that, you never want to go back to living without it."

Bert Latamore is a journalist with 10 years' experience in daily newspapers and 25 in the computer industry. He has written for several computer industry and consumer publications. He lives in Linden, Va., with his wife, two parrots and a cat.

This story, "What's the Future of Municipal Wi-Fi?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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