What If They Built A Muni Wi-Fi Network And No One Came?
By Mike Masnick, Mon Mar 28 23:00:00 GMT 2005

While many of the efforts aimed at blocking municipally-backed Wi-Fi are simply fronts by incumbent telcos to block any kind of competition, it doesn't necessarily mean that municipal Wi-Fi is right for everyone.

It seems that the debate over municipal Wi-Fi has been knocked off course lately. Opponents to municipal Wi-Fi can almost always be traced back to incumbent broadband providers who have suspect motives. They're going around, trying to push laws that prohibit any kind of municipal broadband offerings, claiming that it's unfair competition from the bodies that are there to regulate them. That argument is usually a red herring.

If there were real competition, then the various municipalities would never even need to consider offering their own broadband services. It's the incumbents' inability to serve the needs of the population that leads to this issue in the first place. Secondly, the claim that municipalities shouldn't use taxpayer money to fund network buildout rings quite hollow when the same complaining broadband providers are asking for tax subsidy handouts at the same time. These are the same providers who have received plenty of tax breaks in the past -- often for promises they never kept. It's tough to feel much sympathy for the incumbents in these situations. If they're unable to serve a market and create real competition for services, then municipalities should have every right to step in.

However, this doesn't mean that every municipal offering makes sense -- and the focus on Wi-Fi for municipal broadband increasingly looks misplaced. In focusing on the debate above, people don't pay as much attention to the purpose of municipal broadband and the technology choices being made. There are a number or reasons why a city might want to offer municipal broadband. It could be to connect homes and businesses that have been bypassed by incumbents. It could be to offer faster speeds and more connectivity to make the region more attractive to large employers. That strategy worked in Oregon for attracting Google (with muni fiber, not Wi-Fi). In too many cases, though, those who push muni-Wi-Fi seem to have much more general goals. It's often something about improving the attractiveness of downtown areas, with the idea that people will come for the Wi-Fi and stay for the shopping.

However, too many muni Wi-Fi offerings seem to be doing it just because everyone else is. Without real goals, it's hard to judge whether or not the offering is a success. Already, some are noticing problems with haphazard muni Wi-Fi offerings. When not designed with some specific purpose in mind and not well advertised or understood, they're not being used. Furthermore, the technology involved is looking like it may be a mistake. Despite continued efforts to turn Wi-Fi into a wider-area technology using mesh technologies, Wi-Fi was and is a local wireless technology. It's also an evolving one. Many of these muni-Wi-Fi efforts are quite ambitious and won't be completed for some time, at which point there will be many other options out there for wireless technologies, and the municipal offering may seem quite out of date.

This isn't to say that it should never be done. However, cities that are rushing to go Wi-Fi just because it's the hot thing need to think past the momentary publicity boost to figure out what the real goals are for a municipal Wi-Fi project, and whether or not it really makes sense at this time with this technology.