Citywide Wi-Fi Part Three

This started as a comment to Daniel’s last entry, but then I said to myself, I said, “Hey, dingleberry, you can post entries to this here Metroblog. What’s the holdup?”

San Francisco does not have citywide Wi-Fi. Yet, anyway. They issed an RFP a couple months ago, and they got 26 responses. One of the proposals was from Google, who is proposing paying for the network build-out and allowing free access in return for pushing ad content to the users. Problem is, the network Google proposed was about a third as robust as it needed to be to truly be considered a reliable broadband cloud. And when you consider all the hills, trees, and tall, multi-dwelling buildings in SF, they are going to need a hell of a network to pull it off.

I am a fan of the free market, but I am highly suspicious of private businesses and I tend to fall on the social side when it comes to natural monopolies, i.e. I don’t think private businesses should be granted exclusive licenses to any markets. I have Charter cable. What if I want Comcast? Welcome to Shit Creek, please relenquish your paddle.

For some municipalities, having the city build, own, and manage their wireless network makes perfect sense. Example: Adel, Georgia. They already own their power, water, and sewer utilities. Because they are considered rural, the cable/DSL penetration is a joke. So, they had their electric company hardhats build the network and they just added internet access as a line item onto the monthly utility bill. Sure they had to raise some capital to get the project done, but now they’re up and running and they aren’t beholden to some multi-national Telco who couldn’t care less about their community.

Major metropolitan areas are a different story. Daniel brings up Atlanta’s dilapidated sewer system. Atlanta can’t even manage the concept that shit rolls downhill. What makes anyone think they can efficiently build and manage a multi-million dollar wireless mesh network? And that’s to say nothing of the potential corruption of such a process. Building a network that works is only the first step. Ongoing maintenance, service, and billing issues could very easily bring a large expensive network to its knees.

I like the idea of small hotspots popping up until there is eventually ubiquitous coverage, but a patchwork like that will never be as powerful or reliable as a network that is designed from the top down unless all of the harware and software used was completely open source and open access, and that, frankly, ain’t gonna happen.

There is a model floating around that has yet to be proven but shows huge promise. Basically, a private company pays to build the network and ultimately owns the network. The municipality serves as an anchor tennant by switching the bulk of their network connectivity over to the new wireless network at heavily discounted rates. the municipality saves money on communication costs, and the network owner starts to recover their investment in the network. In addition, other service providers will be provided wholesale reseller access to the network to bundle with their other offerings and to help bolster competition. Cost to the city: $0. Burden on the city to manage: none.

The obvious beneficiaries to this would be people sitting in the park with their laptops, but there is a huge Digital Divide factor here as well. True broadband access can be provided to low income customers for discounted rates, thereby helping to close the gap between the aforementioned park goers, and those who currently have to wait their turn at the public library terminal. Yes, you would still need to acquire a computer, but a small desktop at home will work fine, and $10 a month, or less, is a lot more manageable than $50 a month for a cable modem.

The phrase “Public/Private Partnership” is a buzzword that means a lot of different things in a lot of different contexts, but this is one that could work.

An excellent source of information:

FULL DISCLOSURE: If I sould like a marketeer, it’s because I work for a company that is involved in a handful of different Municipal Wi-Fi scenarios, and, as such, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about it lately.

3 Comments so far

  1. Don (unregistered) on October 28th, 2005 @ 4:42 pm

    Good points.
    Me probably works for same company if you know Baton Bob.

  2. Kent (Atl Metblogs) (unregistered) on October 29th, 2005 @ 11:07 am

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding the Baton Bob reference, but I’m pretty sure everyone in Midtown and the surrounding areas knows Baton Bob.

  3. STEVE BEVILLE (unregistered) on October 29th, 2005 @ 3:05 pm

    Any thoughts on security of Wi-Fi vs. something like Verizon’s 3G data network that is up and running now? I can get a wireless card and use Verizon. For some reason, I am under the impression they have a safer network. So, why would I want to trust a muni system? I don’t really know the options

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