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Muni Wi-Fi hits wall of economic and political realities

Some cities in Europe, U.S. called successes

June 5, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - NEWTON, Mass. -- Municipal Wi-Fi systems, full of promise and hype over the past two years, have hit the wall of reality in the U.S. because of economics, politics and even the technology.

That was the message conveyed by city administrators, Wi-Fi evangelists and even some vendors of Wi-Fi antennas, software and related technology at the MuniWireless 07: New England conference here yesterday.

"Municipal Wi-Fi is coming to reality in the U.S.," said Esme Vos, founder of, which organized the conference. "Everything with muni Wi-Fi last year was very theoretical, 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.'"

Vos is a self-styled municipal Wi-Fi evangelist who was trained as an attorney and lives in Amsterdam. She has captured the attention of many technologists and city administrators because of her thorough study of ongoing U.S.-based municipal Wi-Fi projects and her soft-spoken and critical approach to the technology. Her Web site,, lists 385 cities and counties in the U.S. that are deploying, planning or running Wi-Fi networks, a number that increases to 424 if the number of cities and counties that are seriously considering municipal Wi-Fi are included.

While those numbers sound impressive, Vos was quick to tell conference attendees in brief remarks and reporters in interviews that none of the big U.S. cities with ambitious plans have fully deployed their networks. Some cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco have begun falling short of lofty political goals to serve poor neighborhoods and to listen to grass-roots political organizations as well, Vos and other attendees pointed out.

"The [approval] process has moved away from its roots, and we've seen tension in San Francisco," Vos noted. "They've moved away from the community model."

Vos pointed to St. Cloud, Fla., as a success, but said that some IT managers will visit a conference and hear about successes where a town's geography was flat, only to encounter problems when they hit their hilly home communities that require installing many more access points for full coverage.

One attendee asked Vos if municipal Wi-Fi is working anywhere, which prompted her to mention St. Cloud. After her mention, the attendee asked again, "Is it really working anywhere?" Vos didn't have a chance to respond.

Today, the second day of the conference, is expected to feature some success stories, although an AT&T representative, Carl Nerup, in a presentation yesterday, warned city administrators that municipal Wi-Fi can be expensive, regardless of whether the taxpayers or the service providers carry the costs.

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