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September 18, 2007

Municipal WiFi Facing Rough Weather

By Prabhala Ranga Sai, TMCnet Contributing Editor

Muncipal WiFi seems like it could be just a dream, as per details outlined in a recent article from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Recently, Chicago abandoned its plan for city-wide WiFi (News - Alert) network. Mounting costs, poor coverage and weak demand were some of the reasons that prompted the city government to take this decision. Now, hundreds of cities that had taken up the project of democratizing the Internet and turn city-dwellers into net-surfers are now in the same boat.

Some cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco had even gone to the extent of becoming pure philanthropists. Mayors of these two cities had thought of providing free wireless-Internet access to all residents using WiFi. Specialists in WiFi service such as EarthLink and MetroFi had even agreed initially to provide free connections to poor residents and at highly subsidized rates for deserving sections. But now they have changed their mind. EarthLink, which runs networks in Philadelphia and New Orleans, recently found the returns on the project were not enough to even support the cost of running the network on cost basis. As a result, recently it decided to lay off its 900 workers, including the head of its municipal WiFi division.

Experts point out the root of the problem lies in outdoor transmitters, which do not provide good access inside buildings as their weak signals cannot penetrate thick exterior walls. Adding to the problem is the fact that even the completed networks failed to attract good number of users. For example, America's biggest network, around Tempe, Arizona, was aiming for 32,000 subscribers, but had only 600 in April 2006.

The scenario in the words of Chuck Haas of MetroFi, a supplier of municipal systems is: "Everyone would like something for free, but the numbers do not add up."

Some municipalities such as Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon had accepted to be anchor tenants and their WiFi schemes are proceeding relatively smoothly.

But hope is not lost totally. Municipal WiFi is seen as public safety tool particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as governments at all levels in America set about improving communications between emergency workers. Several cities have built WiFi networks to transmit images from surveillance cameras and the like.


P R Sai is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.


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