Muni Wi-Fi hits wall of economic and political realities

Some cities in Europe, U.S. called successes

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.

"All these programs cost money," Nerup said after describing a range of options for cities to recoup costs, including selling online advertising to subsidize municipal networks. "Bring your Platinum card."

Nerup, executive director for business development at AT&T, said the annual cost of managing a square mile of access points and all the related technology, costs about $40,000, a number that he said was average for all carriers and equipment providers.

And Nerup confirmed that his organization has seen costs get much higher when tall buildings and hills require more access points.

But for Vos and some others, the concerns about municipal Wi-Fi are political as well as economic. Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project in Washington, said he worries that "community organizations are not keeping a seat at the table" when decisions about contracts with large service providers are being made.

"They've created a mess in San Francisco where the city seems to be negotiating with Google or Earthlink and not the community," Feld said in an interview.

Vos said she worries when cities and towns decide to require service providers to build all the infrastructure and even own it,which she has seen more often in recent big requests from cities. "He who pays, decides," she warned, urging cities to consider broadband wireless access as important as roads and highways, and not something special for an elite few.

"Maybe carriers will see that you can have a government build a portion of the network," she said. "Why do cities need to think of ways to make money off a Wi-Fi network? Do you need to make money off a road? Maybe U.S. cities should pay for Wi-Fi."

Vos was not condemning metropolitan Wi-Fi technology at all, she noted, pointing to European cities as examples of successes. "The U.S. is very far behind Europe and cities there," she said. In one example, Vos said that Amsterdam is beginning to install sensors on large trash receptacles that can communicate over outdoor wireless to a central location that know when it is time to empty the trash, preventing them from being overloaded in tourist season and wasted trips when the bins aren't full.

Citywide wireless can help with parking control, traffic management and many other municipal duties, in addition to being used for Web access for residents, businesses and visitors, Vos noted.

In Europe, the European Commission has created a joint response to providing wireless access that will help some rural communities share agricultural tips via training videos, Vos said. In that example, high-level EC commissioners from agricultural and technology fields have joined together. "For that kind of video, you need bandwidth," she noted.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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