The Cost of Free Wireless

Don't get caught up in the "free wireless" hype.

AT&T is providing the city of Riverside, Calif., with free wireless access, supported by advertising. But there are still costs involved, said Michael Beck, assistant city manager.

"It doesnt come free, but it can be very cost-effective," Beck said. "That is where a community can get caught with a surprise. You have to make sure you know what the costs are on the city side, not just the wireless community."

Many cities, however, are getting caught up in the "free wireless" hype.

"In general, weve gone through a period of early hype and expectations," said Phil Belanger, managing director of San Francisco-based Novarum. "Its not peace, love and free Wi-Fi. Its a valuable service. There needs to be value for the city and things you can charge for."

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Read here about three cities that are having municipal wireless success.

Belanger said that part of the problem is that cities have drastically underestimated the hardware requirements for installing citywide Wi-Fi.

"It takes more infrastructure than everyone was saying," he said. He also said that the mere existence of muni Wi-Fi will create demand that in turn will require more infrastructure.

"The number now is probably 40 access points per square mile," Belanger said. "In dense urban areas, it could be 100 per square mile."

"There is no such thing as free," said Craig Mathias, a former chairman of the Board of Selectmen for Ashland, Mass. "It is not the function of government to be an ISP. What we recommend is a premium service that costs more than the bottom tier. Id never recommend free Internet service, except maybe for things like the chamber of commerce with a portal."

But, Mathias added, the fact that it will not be free will not delay its progress.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...