Feeds

US municipal Wi-Fi loses its shine

Business models followed technology too closely

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

A year ago, hardly a week went by without news of a major municipal wireless project in the US, supporting free or subsidized access and a host of shiny business models. Now hardly a week goes by without news of the death of one of these plans.

The San Francisco roll-out, the poster child for the free Wi-Fi movement, largely thanks to Google’s involvement and genius for publicity, hangs in the balance; now Chicago has cancelled its plans, saying it would be “too costly and too few residents will use it”.

But just as the wilder theories that municipal Wi-Fi would sideline the telcos and kill the cellular business case were patently unrealistic, so talk of the death of municipal networking and non-viability of alternative service models is also exaggerated.

The mistake was to associate the new business approach too closely with the technology. Wi-Fi in unlicensed spectrum was readily available, but was never going to be a sufficiently robust technology to support the ambitions of the Google-inspired internet lobby. This is not to say the concept of an open access wireless internet has been fatally, or even seriously, damaged – it has just shifted to new platforms that stand more chance of delivering an experience that is friendly for the users and profitable for the providers.

Hence Google’s defocusing on muni Wi-Fi and new-found passion for 700MHz licensed spectrum and new devices. The search giant knows, as do Intel, Microsoft and the other drivers in this space, that licensed spectrum and technologies remain the key, at least in the medium term, and that the challenge is to change the rules to support open internet models, new operators and wider availability – rather than try to build an unlicensed new structure from scratch, with the danger of creating anarchy and commercial failure, rather than a brave new world.

There are various reasons why the municipal Wi-Fi phenomenon was always doomed to be an interlude in the history of US telecoms rather than a defining force - which is not to say it has not been important. Like Wi-Fi hotspots, it has challenged the telcos to adapt to a more open world, more rapidly than they would have liked, and it has helped to reshape user expectations of what a wireless internet service can provide. Familiarity with low cost, flat rate, always-available and open access services, even if the experience has been flawed, has certainly hastened the collapse of the walled gardens.

But the early municipal trend was built on idealistic notions of bridging digital divides and opening internet access to all, and was largely reliant on the old-fashioned concept that universal access would benefit society and the economy, and therefore should be funded largely from the public purse.

Such approaches quickly foundered on taxpayer reluctance, and the cities’ desire for blanket networks to raise their own profiles played into the hands of the companies leading the drive for new telecoms models in the US, with Google as their cheerleader. These, of course, wanted to hasten the introduction of services that followed the PC internet approach, providing flat rate, low cost broadband with open access and with the main revenues geared to advertising.

The interest in municipal Wi-Fi mesh clearly offered a readymade opportunity for Google to demonstrate its ad-driven model and find a delivery network for it, one that did not require lengthy and expensive negotiations for spectrum rights.

Amid the enthusiasm for ad-driven wireless businesses, however, it was notable that those with real experience of city networks remained skeptical – the well respected MobilePro, for instance, backed away from free access/advertising projects, claiming these were unworkable. The future of real city networks may well lie with companies like this, building out systems for cities with genuine underserved communities, and for applications with real ROI such as traffic monitoring – in other words, traditional business models resting on a mixture of public funding and provider tariffs.

The problems for implementing the Google approach on unlicensed Wi-Fi boiled down to inadequate technology; high risk spectrum; limited user demand; and conflicting operator requirements. Wi-Fi, for all its merits, is constrained in what it can deliver by its confinement to unlicensed bands, which are subject to interference and poor performance.

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
Yorkshire cops fail to grasp principle behind BT Fon Wi-Fi network
'Prevent people that are passing by to hook up to your network', pleads plod
Major problems beset UK ISP filth filters: But it's OK, nobody uses them
It's almost as though pr0n was actually rather popular
Microsoft unsheathes cheap Android-killer: Behold, the Lumia 530
Say it with us: I'm King of the Landfill-ill-ill-ill
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
Apple orders huge MOUNTAIN of 80 MILLION 'Air' iPhone 6s
Bigger, harder trouser bulges foretold for fanbois
US freemium mobile network eyes up Europe
FreedomPop touts 'free' calls, texts and data
'Two-speed internet' storm turns FCC.gov into zero-speed website
Deadline for comments on net neutrality shake-up extended to Friday
Oh girl, you jus' didn't: Level 3 slaps Verizon in Netflix throttle blowup
Just hook us up to more 10Gbps ports, backbone biz yells in tit-for-tat spat
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.