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Reality Catches Up to Municipal Wi-Fi Hype

Wireless networks tax cities because of technical concerns, other issues

By Matt Hamblen
June 18, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - NEWTON, Mass.

Municipal Wi-Fi networks, which have been heavily hyped over the past two years, are now running into a wall of reality in the U.S. because of a combination of economic, political and technical issues.

That was the message conveyed by city administrators, Wi-Fi proponents and even some vendors of wireless technology at a municipal Wi-Fi conference here this month.

Everything with muni Wi-Fi last year was very theoretical, said Esme Vos, one of the founders of MuniWireless LLC, which organized the conference. But when you get around to setting it up in your hometown, administrators hit reality and say, It is not as easy as I thought it would be.

On its Web site, MuniWireless lists 385 cities and counties in the U.S. that are planning, deploying or already running Wi-Fi networks. The count increases to 424 if the municipalities that are seriously considering Wi-Fi projects are included.

But Vos, a self-styled evangelist for municipal Wi-Fi, said at the conference that none of the major U.S. cities with big Wi-Fi plans have fully deployed their networks. She added that some municipal IT managers in hilly communities are encountering coverage problems that require them to install many more Wi-Fi access points than planned.

End-User Considerations

Even officials at Microsoft Corp. have been doing some soul-searching about municipal Wi-Fis future. Were finding that there are real end-user problems, said Stefan Weitz, director of planning at the software vendors MSN unit. For example, indoor coverage is often poor, he said.

Weitz warned that applications such as instant messaging and voice over IP are going to crush these networks unless properly managed.

On the plus side, Weitz said recent market studies done by Microsoft in Portland, Ore., and other locations showed that the Wi-Fi technology has widespread adoption potential among end users.

But the business model for municipal Wi-Fi is still very much up in the air, he added. Consumers are interested but unforgiving, and if it doesnt work, theyre done.

Teresa Martin, executive director of the Cape Cod Technology Council in Barnstable, Mass., said a desire to increase economic development has outweighed potential problems with a Wi-Fi network that connects towns on Cape Cod.

You cannot do any economic development in this century without electronic connectivity, she said. Its the same as roads were in the last century.

Some municipal officials whose cities are launching Wi-Fi projects said they remain buoyant about the prospects for success. They added that they see political and economic concerns as being more important than possible technology roadblocks, although thats partly because their projects are still in the early stages.

But Michael Merrill, a selectman in Brookline, Mass., noted that creating a Wi-Fi network isnt easy for a town like his. Theres no packaged product out there for how to build a Wi-Fi system, he said. We had to invent it.

And Carl Nerup, a vice president of business development at AT&T Inc., warned that municipal Wi-Fi can be an expensive venture. The annual cost of managing Wi-Fi access points and related technology is about $40,000 per square mile, Nerup said. He added that AT&T has seen costs go much higher when tall buildings or hills necessitate additional access points.

All of these programs cost money, Nerup said. Bring your Platinum card.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.



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