WSJ on why free Wi-Fi is failing

by on September 26, 2007 · 0 comments

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ben Charny has an article discussing why “Free Wi-Fi [is] Still an Elusive Goal.” He notes:

The same forces slowing development of single-city wireless Internet networks are now overwhelming their supersize versions that cover thousands of square miles and scores of municipalities. A telling example of the malaise can be found in Silicon Valley, where plans to provide free, high-speed wireless Internet access to 42 cities in an area of more than 1,500 square miles have come to a standstill, says Russell Hancock, the man in charge of the effort.

It was once thought that municipal wireless networks of all sizes could be supported through the sale of advertisements that appear during the free Internet sessions and the small fee paid by those who want a faster, ad-free Internet service. However, many cities with wireless networks say that there’s been little demand for their premium services and that technology issues have limited the networks’ reach. Moreover, while businesses were willing to invest in advertising on these single-city networks, they complain about very little return on their investment.

So, once again, we see that demand counts when it comes to broadband diffusion. That’s been a point that many of us made in the past when critiquing grand plans for muni wi-fi nirvana that all seemed to be premised on the “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” theory of economics. We’re now realizing the cost of that hubris. It’s one thing for private companies to be forced to eat the expense of over-estimating demand, it’s quite another when taxpayers might be on the line for the mistake.

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