Slugging it out over muni Wi-Fi

Two views on the heated debate over city-sponsored Wi-Fi networks

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"This technology is fundamentally unproven right now," Balhoff said. "We don't fully know how satisfactorily the mesh networks will be able to cover the territory. We just don't have sufficient information. Keep in mind, I come from the financial industry that has watched a lot of promising technologies fail."

One big question, Balhoff and other critics claim, is whether the plethora of Wi-Fi networks operated by homes and enterprises will interfere with the public networks. Vos was optimistic that there wouldn't be severe technical problems but agreed that there isn't yet enough experience with large networks to know for sure.

"The network in Tempe, Ariz., is, to my knowledge, the biggest network up and running," she said. "I've heard conflicting reports. But keep in mind that it's like any wireless technology, and all wireless has issues. You walk down the street in the financial district of San Francisco and there are [cellular] dead spots. People don't expect perfection."

More important, Vos said, is that the technology will improve over time and can be upgraded. For example, the plan in Philadelphia is to eventually upgrade to mobile WiMax when that technology becomes viable, she noted.

What the future holds

The incumbent telecom operators initially lobbied hard, but with limited success, for state laws limiting the ability of municipalities to sponsor networks. Those efforts have since died out, Vos said.

"I wouldn't say [the incumbents] have given up, but they realize they couldn't win on a state-by-state level and have taken it up on a federal level as part of the rewrite of the [federal] Telecom Act," Vos said. "That's temporarily shelved for now, so they're re-evaluating."

Vos pointed to signs that the incumbents may be taking an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. In particular, she noted that AT&T Inc. recently won the contract to install a municipally sponsored citywide Wi-Fi network in Riverside, Calif. In its press release, AT&T called the Riverside project its largest citywide Wi-Fi deployment "to date," implying that more such projects were anticipated.

Vos sees additional trends emerging, such as multiple municipalities working together for even larger Wi-Fi networks.

"We've moved from downtown hot zones to citywide and even countywide networks," she said. For example, Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island, N.Y., have put out a joint request for proposal for a single network to cover both counties, she said.

Whether you agree with municipal projects or not, they are becoming a reality. Whether they become successful, however, will be hotly debated for some time to come.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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