Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Municipal Wi-Fi isn’t dead, and neither is the Internet

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.

11 replies »

  1. Hey, if the cheaper hotel is willing to throw in free Internet, I call that a win. No doubt the higher-end chains feel like they can afford to gouge their customers.

  2. They can gouge the wealthy because they know that the wealthy are never going to stay at a middle class hotel just for free internet

  3. MuniWiFi is rolling out without a hitch in Minneapolis so far. It’s not city-wide just yet, but a good chunk of it is up, and the stuff that IS up has been widely credited with improving the city’s response to the I35 bridge collapse.

    The entire city should be gridded up by the end of this year, if I remember my schedule correctly. St. Paul is currently mulling whether they should go with wifi or fibre, so at least there’s something of a method to their foot-dragging. But I really wish they’d hurry up, since that’s where I live.

  4. Parallel muncipal wifi with free mass transit and cities may lure the working- and middle-classes back. Result? Urban renaisssance.

  5. Russ,

    That’s an excellent point and I’m glad you mentioned it. I’ve read several studies (and written a few articles) about the “reverse exodus” from exurbia into cities by older couples, single professionals, and gay partners–the drive of gentrification and the desire to be closer to culture and amenities often lures people who don’t have kids and aren’t looking to have any back out of the exurbs.

    Cheap and available Internet is yet another selling point in that regard.

  6. The New Urbanist movement lives. 😉 John Norquist wrote a very good book a few years ago called “The Wealth of Cities”. Muni wi-fi fits right in there.

    Btw, while we’re on the topic of internet and previous articles have touched on various things, I’d like to share this from John Dvorak last year. It’s part of the bigger problem in the US: too much corporate and special interest money in the system affecting public priorities.

    Oh, Those Crazy French! By John C. Dvorak

    While the world moans and groans about the French and their attitude of cultural superiority, you sometimes have to give them credit, often in hindsight, for their ability to see through all the BS out there.

    So France doesn’t like the idea that Apple and the iPod and iTunes are intertwined with a proprietary structure that has no way for any other player/music download service to compete. The French say that Apple must either open the kimono, as it were, or be banned. Apple thinks it may as well walk away from France. Screw those French!

    The French are also skeptical about the whole movie-piracy phenomenon. Why should illegally downloading the equivalent of a $19 disc result in a $250,000 fine and 5 years in prison? Shoplifting a $100 item from a store

  7. #6. Russ,

    I’ve been researching Denver’s FasTracks mass transit development, and the Denver metro area is planning on significant mass transit-anchored development. The Denver Regional Council of Governments is planning to expand by about 50% the land area of the metro area in the next 15-20 years or so, but then stop almost completely. And it’s mass transit that will enable the population to continue to increase as the metro area’s land area is held stable.