By Martin Bosworth
One of the big technology news items this week was a cascading series of failures on the front of municipal wireless networks, from Earthlink’s financial troubles causing it to pull back on many of its ambitious Muni WiFi projects, and similar projects stalling out in Chicago and Houston. Naturally, this led pundits–including the normally reasonable Om Malik and Cynthia Brumfield–to declare that “liek ZOMG, MUNIWIFI IS SO OVER!!!!”
Let’s be real here. Any innovation on this level is not going to be a barnstorming success out of the gate. You’re going to have flops, failures, scaling down of business plans, and revision of expectations to more sensible levels. Very few entrepreneurs or geniuses get it right the first time, and when you have armies of telco-friendly consultants telling you that this can’t be done (and doing all they can to sabotage the effort), it’s no wonder this isn’t the saving grace everyone thought it would be.
The reason why it’s hard to justify business investment in municipal wireless is because it’s NOT a straight risk-return proposition. Public service systems rarely are. You’re going to be pouring millions of dollars into creating and maintaining a brand new infrastructure, with barely-out-of-the-box technology, and partnering up with city governments, which are as legendarily risk-averse and inefficient as they come. By all rights, this kind of project should be handled much more by the cities and less by private business–but the simple truth is that most major city governments either don’t have the money to do it or wouldn’t know how to spend it. (Why don’t they have the money? Well, I can think of one reason, and it involves our tax revenue going to excessive spending on “the Iraq.” )
But I think Rick Martin at InformationWeek has the right of it–what may not, in all likelihood, work for big urban enclaves can work just fine in smaller cities. And that’s even better–these are the same areas that are much less served by existing incumbent telco and cable providers, and could reasonably benefit from public-funded, low cost access, helped by revenue brought in from the many other potential applications of muni WiFi. It might not be great, but any step that helps bridge the digital divide is better than not taking the step at all.
The genie is out of the bottle and you can’t put it back. Muni WiFi may not be ready yet, but it will happen in some form. Remember, no one thought the Internet would amount to anything, and despite protestations to the contrary, it’s doing fine and continuing to produce viable innovation to this very day. Muni WiFi, in some form, will do the same. It’s just a matter of sussing out what can be built, who’s going to pay for it, and how much of a chance you’re willing to take.