The Grill: Muniwireless.com's Esme Vos on the Hot Seat

The founder of MuniWireless.com talks about how things go wrong in muni Wi-Fi, why the EU does it better and who should bear the risk for liberating a city.

Esme Vos, founder of Muni­Wireless.com, is a lawyer by training who started blogging about municipal wireless in 2003. The blog became MuniWireless.-com, a worldwide aggregator of information about the industry.

What do you think of recent reports of delays and problems with technology and politics in various municipal wireless projects? Lots of people set up pilot programs with different configurations that dont work, and that becomes news. But you undertake pilots to find the problem areas. Suburbs with a lot of trees act kind of like walls and get in the way of wireless signals, and some set up pilots in the winter without leaves, so its those kinds of errors that account for many of the delays. [Cities should] set up three pilots with different technology, in the hills, in downtown congested areas and near students to see what happens when you upload or download large files.

Dossier

Esme Vos
Name: Esme VosTitle: Founder, MuniWireless.com Organization: MuniWireless.comLocation: Amsterdam The most interesting thing people don't know about her: "I'm a shoe freak. I have over 80 pairs. I'm also Filipino, where I lived until 17 before I immigrated to the U.S and went to UC Santa Cruz and then Harvard Law School." Favorite nonwork pastime: "Cooking. I cook a lot of Italian."Role model : "A woman named Alexandra David-Neel, an explorer in the 1920s who walked a long distance to Lhasa, China."Favorite vice: Ice cream In high school, she was: A bookworm

But there are some reports of cost overruns. In light of the total growth, how serious are they? Not very serious. Phillys and Portland, Oregons problems are more or less limited to pilot areas. That says something that they have an incentive to fix it first before deploying over a larger area. Youd like to make all the mistakes in a pilot and fix it before rolling out to other areas. There are no fatal flaws for municipal Wi-Fi systems.

What about the San Francisco and Chicago municipal Wi-Fi problems that materialized in August? The two cities had the misfortune of having chosen a partner who was clueless in the business. For a long time, analysts have been wondering why EarthLink persisted with the hopeless Helio [a struggling mobile virtual network operator]. Helio, not muni Wi-Fi, has been EarthLinks downfall. Their muni Wi-Fi plans just got dragged into the mess.

Are the main causes of delays governmental, economic or technical? The technical problems are what we see upfront. Many lamp posts, where Wi-Fi antennas might be attached, are owned by electrical utilities, so we saw a big issue with Southern California Edison and access to poles, but thats now turned around. The economic risk that a private provider faces is immense, perhaps $40 million, so why cant the municipality bear half the cost? Why should an EarthLink bear all the risk, when cities are creating an infrastructure with public benefit? We wouldnt have the private sector build all the roads, and Wi-Fi is similar. Maybe cities should be building their own fiber and wireless networks and selling access to private wholesale operators who then sell access to retail operators. But cities want the easy, cheap way out, so they went the other way, and here we are.

You say on your site that spending on municipal wireless will hit $460 million in the U.S. in 2007. Will recent negative publicity lower that number? Well do a survey in [the fall], where well ask hundreds of municipalities what their spending patterns are. When I talked to vendors at a June conference in Boston, a lot were saying they are getting resistance, and city officials are more reticent to move forward with municipal Wi-Fi. So, the rate of growth of these systems might go down a little bit in the next report.

Can you state roughly what a midsize or large city project would cost? Boston is saying such a system might cost about $15 million. I think thats too low. For Tucson, Ariz., [a consultant] said it would cost $40 million to $56 million to set up a Wi-Fi network. Thats high, but several things were included. The $40 million was low-density Wi-Fi, and the $56 million was high density with a lot of Wi-Fi nodes. Now consider this: Tucson has 500,000 people, but its very spread out, while San Francisco has 800,000 people, but its very dense. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, EarthLink said it would cost $17 million to $20 million. So thats a big difference in the cities.

Apparently, the European Union is promoting broadband, and Wi-Fi is a popular option. Is that because many countries have a more socialistic attitude about this technology? Yes, yes. In the Nordic countries, theres a public communications infrastructure, for example. The city owns the utility and had always delivered electricity, so when it finally came time to build the communications infrastructure, it was all coordinated by that central utility. There, the cities dont offer the actual service; a private enterprise comes in to offer the service, so people have plenty of choices. The U.S. allows more private competition, but it creates a paradox. You see that people are burned by the cable companies and they just seem to raise rates, and sometimes its just one provider.

Some city officials are concerned about installing Wi-Fi and then having to upgrade to WiMax technology later on. Should they be concerned? All vendors make their gear upgradable, so this becomes a negotiating point. I dont find it a problem. All the vendors right now are selling proprietary hardware, and it has to be more interoperable at some point.

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