Problems in Public Utility Paradise, Part 14: Muni Wi-fi Postmortem

by on October 6, 2010 · 5 comments

Many of the installments of our ongoing ”Problems in Public Utility Paradise” series here at the TLF have discussed the multiple municipal wi-fi failures of the past few years. Six or so years ago, there was quixotic euphoria out there regarding the prospects for muni wi-fi in numerous cities across America — which was egged on by a cabal of utopian public policy advocates and wireless networking firms eager for a bite of a government service contract.  A veritable ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ mentality motivated the movement as any suggestion that the model didn’t have legs was treated as heresy.  Indeed, as I noted here before, when I wrote a white paper back in 2005 entitled “Risky Business: Philadelphia’s Plan for Providing Wi-Fi Service,” and kicked it off with the following question: “Should taxpayers finance government entry into an increasingly competitive, but technologically volatile, business market?,” I received a shocking amount of vitriolic hate mail for such a nerdy subject.  But facts are pesky things and the experiment with muni wi-fi has proven to be even worse than many of us predicted back then.

A new piece by Christopher Mims over at MIT’s Technology Review (“Where’s All the Free Wi-Fi We Were Promised?“) notes that “no technology happens in a vacuum, and where the laws of the land abut the laws of nature, physics will carve your best-laid plans into a heap of sundered limbs every time.” He continues, “the failure of municipal WiFi is an object lesson in the dangers of techno-utopianism. It’s a failure of intuition — the sort of mistake we make when we want something to be right.”  Too true.  Mims was inspired to pen his essay after reading a new paper, “A Postmortem Look at Citywide WiFi“, by Eric M. Fraser, the Executive Director for Research at the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation.  “Almost everyone was fooled by the promise of citywide WiFi,” Fraser notes, because of the promise of a “wireless fantasy land” that would almost magically spread cheap broadband to the masses.  But, for a variety of reasons — most of which are technical in nature — muni wifi failed.  Fraser summarizes as follows:

WiFi cannot deliver a citywide network because technical and regulatory limitations combine to require access points at least every few hundred feet outside and even closer together indoors. Mounting that many access points is generally too expensive and is nearly impossible inside private buildings. WiFi deployments require high-touch, high-density installations. Meanwhile, users often have WiFi access in homes, at work, at coffee shops, in hotels and airports, and in select government buildings. For users who require wireless access outside those areas, private cellular companies offer high-speed 3G wireless data networks using technologies better suited for widespread coverage (because of not only technical differences but also regulatory differences). As a result, the major public WiFi projects were destined for failure and municipalities instead should devote resources to small, focused networks.

Policy makers would be wise to remember the lessons of this experiment next time regulatory activists groups come knocking on their doors with more grandiose “public utility” or even “public media” schemes.  The recent experiment with muni wi-fi again points to the failure of the top-down driven model of planning complex networks and the risks inherent in letting government gamble taxpayer dollars on these risky bets.

  • Yoshi

    City of Minneapolis implemented city wide wifi in a public/private partnership years ago. Except that years later its still largely unused by the city itself and its residents. Last year they expanded it to parks that would allow park users to use it “free”. But you still needed to provide them with a credit card (the excuse given was for “security reasons”). Meanwhile Qwest and Comcast have been upgraded their networks. WiMAX is now available throughout the city at speeds faster than WiFi and at a reliability the city's network can't match. Anyone with even the most basic IT experience could see that this boondoggle wouldn't work.

  • Steve R.

    Free is better than having to pay corporations for unintentional services that weren't requested. Verizon Wireless to Pay Millions in Refunds . Amazing that a company, such as Verizon, does not seem to have the technical expertise or management willingness to solve this long-term issue.

  • Ryan Radia

    Mims' discussion of the 2.4Ghz band's role in hindering muni wi-fi is especially interesting. While 3G and, more recently, 4G now deliver high-speed mobile broadband to millions, large-scale wi-fi deployments are few and far between. It's not a coincidence that 3G/4G operate in licensed spectrum (where there's at least a modicum of property rights) while wi-fi operates in an unlicensed band that's increasingly suffering from the tragedy of the commons problem.

  • Rory

    I have to respectfully disagree. The original models for WiFi were based on faulty designs along with ridiculous costs. The requirement for more bandwidth today is driving the cell phone companies crazy in trying to keep up. Now, throw in 802.11N, amazingly lower cost equipment in all the unlicensed bands, 3.65GHz, and now 900MHz, and you have a recipe for a new battle. With new equipment coming out to expand the capabilities of WiFi along with costs dropping by 80% or more, I think a new era may be coming in. I describe some of the ideas in “Tales from the Towers” and have talked to many people and municipalities that are planning new systems.

  • georgeou

    If you build it they will indeed come. The problem is getting them to pay anything.

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