There’s a roadblock in Boynton Beach‘s information superhighway. The city’s Community Redevelopment Agency decided this month it has no more money for free wireless Internet service in its district. Boynton Beach was the first city in Palm Beach County to offer Wi-Fi three years ago. It operated 11 “hot spots,” or access points, paying $44,000 annually for vendors to keep the system running. But the CRA dropped vendors who failed to meet their contracts. Other companies wanted to sell the Community Redevelopment Agency new equipment, but in a tough budget year, offering free wireless was no longer viable, said the agency’s executive director, Lisa Bright. [...] “There is clearly no way for it to be a revenue generator at this time,” Bright said. “It’s premature for us to go to the next level.”
Whenever I read one of these articles about the small town or mid-sized town wi-fi experiments failing so miserably I have to admit that I am a bit surprised. After all, many muni wi-fi supporters have argued that it is precisely in those communities where government support is most necessary and will be most likely to fill in gaps left by sporadic / delayed private broadband deployment. Frankly, I always thought this was the best argument for muni wi-fi and it’s why I made sure to never go on record as opposing all government efforts, even though I am obviously a skeptic and don’t like the idea of wagering taxpayer money on such risky ventures. (By contrast, I could just never see the reason for government subsidies of wi-fi ventures in major metro areas with existing private broadband operators. Like Philly and Chicago.)
But the fact that many small town or mid-sized town wi-fi experiments are failing is really interesting because it must tell us something about either (a) the viability of the technology or (b) demand for such service. Now, many municipalization believers will just say that clearly (a) is the case and argue that we just need to wait for Wi-Max solutions to come online and then all will be fine. It certainly may be the case that Wi-Max will help boost coverage in low density areas, but is that really the end of the story? What about demand? What really makes me mad when I read most of these stories about current failed experiments is that they rarely give us any solid numbers about how many people utilized the services. To the extent any journalists or analysts are out there contemplating a story or study on this issue, I beg you to dig into the demand side of the equation and try to find out how much of the currently muni-wifi failure is due to technology and how much is due to demand, or lack thereof. Of course, government mismanagement could also be a culprit. But I suspect there is a far less demand for these services than supporters have estimated.