Seattle Considers City-wide Wi-Fi
By Eric Lin, Tue Jun 08 21:30:00 GMT 2004

The Seattle City Council is considering routing around incompatible Wi-Fi networks scattered throughout local cafes and business by unwiring the entire city on their own.

Seattle City Councilman Jim Compton has proposed that Seattle be the first US city to setup a Wi-Fi network covering the entire metropolitan area (from Wi-Fi Networking News). Many other cities in the US and elsewhere have started setting up Wi-Fi zones covering busy retail or dining areas, however coverage for an entire city is rare. (We've only heard about Cerritos, California.)

Seattle, like lots of other US cities, has already deployed a fiber network throughout the city. Burlington, Vermont, recently announced it intends to do the same -- not just for city use, but to provide residents with broadband as well. Currently residents cannot sign up for broadband access on Seattle's network, nor is it designed to provide residents with access. While it's not meant to provide fiber to every home, it could probably provide backhaul for enough industrial-strength Wi-Fi hotspots to cover the city. The US Supreme Court recently made deploying a network more difficult for some cities, since states can now outlaw cities from operating their own broadband network.

It's easier for residents and service providers to accept a city owning and then leasing a fiber network. Policy wonk Lawrence Lessig and others have pointed out that fiber is virtual monopoly. However what will happen when a city competes directly with wireless ISPs? This is not like competing with a utility company, but competing with corporations -- who will do pretty much everything to protect their interest in making money. Despite what these corporations will say (at least at first), a municipal network may not be as bad for business as it sounds. The city may be able to undercut other WISPs in price, but the WISPs can fire back with applications and services the city is unlikely to provide. The private networks can also offer better access for travelers, who often find themselves in new cities all the time. Competing with a citywide blanket network should also drive the private WISPs to forge roaming or network sharing agreements, solving the initial problem not just for one city, but for many others which could not launch their own Wi-Fi network.