Citywide WiFi

Interesting article from CNet on the current state of citywide WiFi projects.

Despite the recent onslaught of bad press, citywide and regional Wi-Fi networks are not dead.

In fact, cities, such as Corpus Christi, Texas; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Philadelphia, are actually seeing early signs of success. And lessons learned from these deployments if applied properly could help save bigger and more, ambitious projects such as Silicon Valley’s regional wireless network.

Two of the biggest lessons that other cities can take away from projects currently under way are having a clear mission and use case for building these networks and also defining a business model for building and sustaining the network.

“Cities that have seen early success have been able to articulate very clearly to politicians and citizens how the network will be used and how it will benefit people,” said Craig Settles, an independent wireless consultant. “And they’ve also had clear business plans for paying for the networks.”

In the very earliest days of citywide Wi-Fi, this appeared to be the case. Cities, such as Corpus Christi, looked into Wi-Fi to solve a particular problem. The city wanted to allow its utility workers to read water and gas meters remotely. Wi-Fi seemed like a perfect solution.

The city soon expanded the scope of its network to also enable building inspectors, code enforcers, police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to communicate wirelessly with each other. And now Wi-Fi is also used to keep tabs on city property such as vehicles and provide remote surveillance in certain parts of the city. Earlier this year, Corpus Christi sold its network to EarthLink, which will not only provide the wireless service to several city agencies, but also sell consumer broadband services to residents for $20 a month.


Philadelphia, which started building its network more than a year ago, took a different tack. The city saw Wi-Fi as a way to bridge the gap between rich and poor by providing low-cost broadband service to disadvantaged citizens.

EarthLink, which saw citywide Wi-Fi as an opportunity to own its own network infrastructure, won the contract to build and run the network. In addition to paying for the network, EarthLink also committed to providing some funding for the city’s nonprofit group Wireless Philadelphia, which subsidizes Internet service for Philadelphia’s low-income households and helps provide training and equipment.

Subscriber numbers in Philadelphia have not been released, but Greg Goldman, CEO of the nonprofit group Wireless Philadelphia, said that thousands of retail customers and dozens of nonprofit groups have already begun using the network, which is still not fully deployed. One of the biggest boosts in usage came when Drexel University, which owns and operates one of the largest wireless networks in the country, added the Wireless Philadelphia service to its array of services that it offers to students and faculty.

“There’s no question the ground is shifting,” Goldman said. “But wireless technology isn’t going away. And it provides a much needed service for low-income people. We’ve been very clear from the beginning of that focus. And we believe it creates an enormous market for broadband.”

I see Houston’s effort as a combination of Corpus Christi and Philly. It’s not clear yet what will happen now that EarthLink is balking at the terms of the original contract – they may ultimately go forward, possibly under different terms, or they may pay a penalty and get out. It seems clear that there’s still the political will to go forward with the project – to the best of my recollection, every Council candidate I interviewed expressed support of pursuing citywide WiFi with or without EarthLink – it’s just a matter of getting the vendor sorted out. Maybe that local coalition that lost to EarthLink in the bidding can be revived if all else fails. Thanks to Matt Stiles for the link.

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