However, the whole concept of muni networks and the industry that has sprung up around it could be in danger of unravelling – something governments in this region should watch closely. As our US correspondent Patrick Neighly reports this week, Chicago is one of the high-profile cities that has recently had a re-think of its city-wide Wi-Fi plans, while at the same time Earthlink, a major investor in muni wireless infrastructure, has also done its sums and concluded that it’s perhaps not such a good way to spend its money after all.
It’s not alone, however, with skepticism about the whole concept of municipal Wi-Fi being the main theme of media coverage in the past few weeks. According to an article in this week’s The Economist, most of the networks that have been put in place today suffer from a wide but consistent range of problems: poor indoor coverage, underestimating the number of transmitters needed for city-wide service, a lack of demand for the service from the general public and no real demand from the city governments themselves.
Somehow, you would have thought that someone would have pointed to such potential problems before the estimated 175 municipal networks now in service were rolled out. It’s not like the coverage problems weren’t known, and stuff like estimating demand and the number of transmitters needed would seem to be fairly basic steps before rolling out any wireless service.
As for the governments themselves, The Economist quoted networking consultant Craig Settles as saying they simply weren’t ready with basic things such as their back office systems to provide government services over the networks. Settles has also done a recent report on the benefits of muni wireless and he concludes that one of the biggest tasks is to manage expectations. “Poorly managing expectations is a killer. Muni wireless is taking some undeserved lumps because so many public statements in 2006 promised what the technology can’t deliver and supported business models difficult to sustain,” he wrote in the report.
In other words, many networks are being judged on criteria that they themselves had not set. He claimed that some of the success stories are not getting the publicity that the tales of muni doom and gloom are. For example, one of the first muni networks, in
“Articles now say that unless we see hordes of young professionals and tourists roaming the streets of
On the plus side, all of this activity, both positive and negative, can provide useful lessons for similar networks going up in
For example in Taiwan the demand has been nowhere near what was expected – according to The Economist it was claimed to need 250,000 regular subscribers by the end of 2006 in order to break even, but had attracted only 30,000 by April this year. And we’ve already reported here in Broadband Communities of complaints regarding coverage and quality in
In the case of
Which is not to deny that there is a place for municipal wireless, either in the
And finally, do everything possible to manage expectations. If public access is not an important goal, or if the aim is to spur development in terms of business or public services, make sure that the public and media know that’s the case. Otherwise you could have the situation that is arising in