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In some ways, the mind-set around municipal wireless technology is much like that around net neutrality: Most people think its a good thing, but almost no one can agree on what it actually means. Thats not stopping muni wireless from wending its way into cities across the United States, each of which is tweaking the technology to suit the needs of its many constituencies, as well as its budgetary concerns. Depending on whom you ask, muni wireless can mean a high-speed data solution for emergency workers, automated meter reading, citywide wireless Internet access or a way to help close the digital divide. It may even mean some combination of those things. "Its very early, so you cant reach any final judgments based on what we see so far," said analyst Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, in Ashland, Mass.Mathias said he thinks the availability of devices capable of operating on more than one service, such as cellular and Wi-Fi, will have a major impact on muni wireless. "Convergence is a major driver for metro Wi-Fi," he said. "The cellular carriers will become dependent on Wi-Fi. The voice bands will saturate, and they dont have the bandwidth for multimegabit services. If [carriers] augment their capabilities with Wi-Fi, they have hundreds of megabits they can make available because its free spectrum. The technology is available, it is being deployed, and the cellular carriers have a very strong incentive. How can it fail?" Good question. Muni Wi-Fiand, more broadly, muni wirelessis showing success in only a few places. The reasons are as varied as the locations. In some cases, its because the municipality doesnt realize the cost or difficulty; some cities find that they dont have the means to manage such large and complex projects; and governments sometimes want something for nothingthat is, they want a vendor to pick up the costs, but they cant agree on how vendors can make any money. The recent collapse of San Franciscos much-hyped municipal wireless plans is only the latest demonstration that theres no such thing as a free wireless lunch. The same thing happened in Chicago, although at a much earlier stage of planning. For more on San Franciscos muni wireless saga, read Jason Brooks column. San Francisco and Chicago wanted a free network for everyone, but neither city was willing to commit to using the network for city services. And, in the case of San Francisco, at least, the forces that run the city let the whole thing become a political football. The problem is that municipal wireless networks are expensive to install, and theyre expensive to run. Without some assurance that theyll have a stream of revenue, companies that might be convinced to operate such a network wont do it. eWEEK Labs examined three implementations to see where municipal wireless is working, why, and how enterprises may benefit. Because, while enterprises arent cities, many of the factors that affect municipal wireless implementationsincluding complexity and coverage issuesalso affect enterprises. In Providence, R.I., Greenville, N.C., and Riverside, Calif., the powers that be figured out that they needed to make municipal wireless a viable proposition for the company thats doing the wireless work. In the case of Providence, it was easy because the municipal wireless network was built for the city to support city services. In both Greenville and Riverside, the cities agreed to play a role in usingand paying to usethe network. Page 2: Welcome to Wireless
Mathias added that, currently, muni wireless can be whatever a city decides to make it but that, in nearly every case, it involves public access to Wi-Fi. "There are probably in excess of 400 deployments on a global basis," Mathias said. "Wi-Fi is going to become as common as cellular over the next decade. Its free when you buy a computer. More than half of phone handsets will have Wi-Fi."