Why Wi-Fi? Why Not?
In 2004, when Philadelphia officials announced plans to build a citywide broadband network using a wireless technology called Wi-Fi, they fired the starter pistol in the race for the title of “Most Unwired City” and challenged the private sector to get in the game. Cities all over the country have since followed the City of Brotherly Love’s lead, building wireless networks of their own, and private Internet service providers have become essential team members.
Cities’ justifications for building the networks are as varied as the methods for doing so. Philadelphia started its network to bring broadband into the homes of its poorest residents. Some remote communities view Wi-Fi as an economic development tool to attract and keep industry. Corpus Christi, Texas, has embraced Wi-Fi as a platform for city services, running public safety data networks and municipal applications. Still others see Wi-Fi as a great laboratory in the sky and are either launching or encouraging companies to launch wireless grids as technology test beds open to everyone. Whatever the reasons, the front-running municipal networks have clearly defined goals and operations designed to address community needs.
The ways of Wi-Fi
While providing broadband Internet service with other wireless technologies is possible, Wi-Fi has particular appeal to cities because the equipment is relatively cheap, and unlike other wireless technologies, such as cellular, an operator does not require a spectrum license to use it. The Wi-Fi airwaves are free.
Even with those inherent cost savings, building a citywide Wi-Fi network can cost millions to tens of millions of dollars in capital investment depending on the size of the city. Implementing Wi-Fi is not a decision any government can make lightly, says Alan Shark, executive director of the Washington-based Public Technology Institute. “A city builds something because it does not exist and there is a public need for it,” he says. A city may have broadband infrastructure, but it may not be accessible to everyone who needs it or provided in the ways that they need (i.e. wirelessly). It also may not be affordable to all residents. Those are all legitimate reasons to pursue a public Wi-Fi network or a public-private partnership, he says.
Philadelphia saw its poorest residents being passed by the broadband revolution and decided to bridge the digital divide between the rich and Internet savvy and the poor and unconnected. Philadelphia’s broadband project is being built by Atlanta-based EarthLink, which is selling Internet accounts commercially directly to customers and wholesale to other ISPs. In exchange for access to Philadelphia’s rights of way and utility poles, the company is providing the city discounted access accounts, which the city-created, non-profit Wireless Philadelphia distributes to the technologically disenfranchised as part of a computer and Internet literacy program.
“EarthLink is building this thing at its own expense,” says Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia. “The mayor and the city just allowed it to happen. Now, it’s up to us to do something with that network to address the digital divide. We want to make everyone understand how gaping that divide is in Philadelphia and the rest of the country, and what we can do to close it.”
Corpus Christi officials decided to build a Wi-Fi network primarily to automate meter-reading tasks. Although cellular meter reading was available, the city found the cost too high and invested in its own municipally owned Wi-Fi network. It grew to blanket the 147-square-mile city, providing other services like voice over Internet Protocol communications and public broadband access. The city recently agreed to sell its assets to EarthLink.
Vail, Colo., officials opted for a public-private approach in which the local telephone company CenturyTel built a commercial Wi-Fi network with a dedicated spectrum for police and fire departments in exchange for use of the town’s rights of way, utility poles and buried fiber-optics grid. Vail will be the anchor tenant of the commercial network, leasing capacity for city workers and city services. Eventually, Vail will share CenturyTel’s revenues for commercial operations once construction costs are paid off, says Ron Braden, IT director for Vail. And, as part of its agreement with the town, CenturyTel will offer Wi-Fi services free for the first hour to anyone who logs on, giving Vail a distinction among other ski resort towns in attracting seasonal visitors, Braden says.
Keeping it private
Opting to stay out of the municipal Wi-Fi business, some cities are limiting their wireless broadband operations to hotspots on public property and leaving the rest to the private sector. As a high-tech city brimming with young professionals and home to one of the country’s largest universities, Austin seems like an ideal candidate for a citywide network. But, city officials have had no inclination to expand on the first public hotspots established in 2002 in public squares, parks and the areas outside of municipal buildings.
There is simply no point for the city to invest in a citywide network when commercial industry has the expertise and willingness to do so, says Austin CIO Pete Collins. Almost every coffee shop in town has free Wi-Fi, and in May 2006, a free network using equipment donated entirely by San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems came online in the southern half of downtown, coinciding with the World Congress of Information Technology held in the convention center. The downtown network serves businesses and visitors in the central business district and provides a test bed for new wireless applications.
Though their services are not free, cellular companies like Sprint, Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless have built advanced wireless networks — known as ‘3G’ networks — that offer broadband connectivity well beyond the confines of Austin’s public hotspots. And, even where mobility may not be an option, broadband still proliferates: DSL and cable modem connections are readily available from AT&T and Time Warner Cable. “I’m not against technology, I love technology,” Collins says, but it is precisely because he loves technology, he adds, that he thinks government should leave it to the private enterprises that know it best.
“If I need broadband coverage for the city and county, it’s a $20- to $50-million project, but by the time I actually complete it, a new technology will have come out,” Collins says. “Given that this technology is moving at such a fast rate, it would be fiscally irresponsible to build one with taxpayer dollars knowing that once it was built something better would already be available.”
Building a backbone
While Austin is letting the private sector build out a wireless broadband infrastructure, Boston is choosing to construct a public wireless grid that any company or institution could use — just like the city streets. Boston officials are launching a non-profit organization to build, maintain and run a municipal Wi-Fi network covering all 49 square miles of the densely packed city limits.
The non-profit will not compete with for-profit Internet service providers, says Nicholas Vantzelfde, a director for Boston-based management consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co., the project manager for the city’s wireless task force. Rather, it will build the backbone Wi-Fi infrastructure for the city and sell access to any and all comers, including any ISP. “[Wi-Fi is] the ideal technology for an open wireless network, one which encourages entrepreneurism and innovation,” Vantzelfde says.
Vantzelfde says the private sector may be better at keeping ahead of the technology curve, but competition would drive most companies to restrict others from accessing their networks or not allow unproven applications from residing on it. By placing the network in the hands of the non-profit, no application or idea would ever be denied access.
Old enemies become friends
Ironically, the original opponents of citywide Wi-Fi — phone companies who screamed foul at the notion of a city using its tax-exempt status and taxpayer dollars to muscle into their highest growth market — are now some of its biggest supporters. San Antonio-based AT&T and Monroe, La.-based CenturyTel are competing with EarthLink for city contracts.
Companies in the municipal Wi-Fi business have their own reasons for playing ball with cities — they are not in it for civic reasons, says Roberta Wiggins, an analyst for the Boston-based Yankee Group covering the municipal wireless industry. EarthLink, for instance, is trying to build up a critical mass of city contracts so it can bill itself as a nationwide ISP that is not dependent on other companies’ broadband lines to do business. AT&T and the other telcos see citywide Wi-Fi as a way to supplement their existing DSL businesses rather than a DSL alternative, Wiggins says.
As more companies court cities to build and run Wi-Fi networks, local officials are growing spoiled by favorable terms and are sometimes overreaching, Wiggins says. If cities get too greedy, the competitive motivation for companies to enter into partnerships will disappear. “One city put out an RFP that was essentially every other municipal Wi-Fi RFP combined,” Wiggins says. “They asked for everything, and they asked for it all for free. They didn’t get a single response.”
Riverside, Calif., is going for it all. It contracted with AT&T to build a wireless network with a dedicated public safety overlay, free ad-supported Wi-Fi for all residents, municipal applications and even a digital inclusion program giving families making under $45,000 a year discounted broadband service. But, Riverside also has to fork over some of the costs. As part of its deal, it has committed $2 million over the next five years in service fees. Riverside’s new Wi-Fi network may not be gratis, but it is getting a lot for a bargain, says Steve Reneker, the city’s CIO. “We realized you can’t get everything for free.”
As more cities join the wireless pack, a bandwagon mentality is developing. “The problem with Wi-Fi is that there are not enough people asking, ‘Why?’ They are only asking, ‘How?’” Shark says. “Many places have pre-determined that they need Wi-Fi. There is an irrational piece to this. They want Wi-Fi because they don’t want to be left behind.”
Kevin Fitchard is an associate editor for Telephony, American City & County’s sister publication.
How municipal Wi-Fi works
Wi-Fi is a globally adopted technology based on a standard called 802.11. That mishmash of numbers contains the core specifications for wireless local area networks around the world, and, consequently, a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or personal digital assistant will work pretty much any place with a Wi-Fi access point.
The typical Wi-Fi hotspot in the local coffee shop or copy center has a range of only a few hundred feet and uses a wireless router that has to be connected to the Internet through a DSL line or fiber connection. A citywide network, meanwhile, calls for hundreds of access points per square mile, and linking each one of those to a broadband connection is costly. Mesh networks, however, solve that problem by using Wi-Fi routers not only to connect to the end-users’ laptops, but also to transmit data between routers. The end result: the mesh network forms an overlapping chain, requiring only one in every several access points to connect to the Internet.