Citywide WiFi projects are expensive experiments

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/12/2006 - 10:48

Citywide WiFi projects in Sacramento, California and St. Cloud, Florida are both having problems, supporting my long-standing contention that these efforts are risky. MobilePro, the company that got a city government contract to blanket the city with WiFi, is pulling out of the project entirely after the company and the city could not agree on how to finance the project. What's mind-boggling is how the company and the city agreed to move forward without a clear understanding of how the system would be paid for. Unfortunately, this is typical of "knee jerk" broadband projects that are promoted vigorously to local leaders who don't really understand enough about how community broadband should be operated. And very few vendors do, either. Wireless vendors just want to sell hardware, and so they don't really care very much if a business model is weak or nonexistent.

In St. Cloud, Florida, which got a lot of publicity when their citywide wireless effort was announced, is now having problems because they are finding out what some of us have known for a long time--WiFi is at best a bridge technology, not a long term solution. And you have to understand its limitations to make best use of it. The St. Cloud problems are largely technical ones at this time, with many residents not able to get a strong enough signal to use the free service. Residents are being advised by the City to buy a $170 signal booster. But many say they are going to stick with DSL.

One of the problems with WiFi is that it is can be lumped in the same category as DSL and cable modem services--that is too say, not exactly a bridge to the future. If you already have DSL or cable modem service, switching to WiFi is not likely to bring any real improvement to throughput, and it might even be less capable. Consumers are price sensitive to a point, but at this time, many people already understand the value of broadband, and are willing to pay for it in return for adequate performance. What St. Cloud is finding out is that residents won't necessarily switch to a free service that does not perform up to their expectations. So the city's money may have been wasted.

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