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Wireless Networking Communications The Internet Hardware

Why Municipal Wi-Fi Networks have Been Such a Flop 236

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the on-the-town dept.
Jake Melville from Slate shot us a link to one of their stories that outlines why municipal wi-fi failed but also tells of the too-rare success stories. While cities that left their wi-fi in the hands of the private sector fell prey to the "last-mile" problem, grassroots efforts such as that in St. Cloud, FL, have blossomed.
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Why Municipal Wi-Fi Networks have Been Such a Flop

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  • Long story short: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Opportunist (166417) on Friday September 28, 2007 @04:48AM (#20779955)
    It's a selling problem.

    As a politician, you can't 'sell' citywide internet access as easily as you can public transport, sewer system or power. It's not one of those "must have" things, it's one of those "why should I have to pay for it" things.

    It's easy to get other municipal expenses explained. Citywide public transport? Ok, you may have a car so you might not need it, but if everyone did, you'd be in jams longer. Gas? Duh. Power? Duh! Sewer system? DUH!

    Internet? Huh? Interhet? Hell what do I need that for, eh? If someone wanna use it, they gotta pay it, 'k, not on my tax money!

    Should we reach the point where internet access becomes so much a part of everyday life as tapwater and power in your apartment, we can talk about it. Before that, no politician would survive it, politically, to suggest blowing tax money into internet.

    It could work akin to public transport, where you pay a (nominal) monthly fee, but then, in how many cities could that work? I mean, it would certainly work around here, where you still pay 50+ for 1024/256, but how about areas where companies already offer 4mbit+ for less than 30?
  • by teh kurisu (701097) on Friday September 28, 2007 @05:18AM (#20780069) Homepage

    Should we reach the point where internet access becomes so much a part of everyday life as tapwater and power in your apartment, we can talk about it.

    Was home electricity really a 'part of everyday life' before electricity generation and distribution received any substantial government investment?

  • by maxume (22995) on Friday September 28, 2007 @05:48AM (#20780193)
    Private internet providers *have* received significant amounts of government funding.
  • by rucs_hack (784150) on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:07AM (#20780275)
    the only reason municipal wifi fails is that there are too many companies desperate to get rich from providing internet access, and not at all keen on the concept of access for all unless the aforementioned 'all' pay many doller.

    In the pacific there have been free wireless access rollouts that are problem free. I mean shit, if an Island can manage it, so can a city ffs.

    My suspicion is that the march of technology is hampered by the greed of individuals.
  • by teh kurisu (701097) on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:11AM (#20780289) Homepage

    I know that. Even not counting any expenditure on the backbone, the vast majority of broadband connections in the UK are ADSL, which uses the phone network installed by the nationalised Post Office Telecommunications.

    The point I was trying to make was that, given the GPP's criteria - that a utility has to become 'everyday' before it should receive government funding - we would have no electricity in our houses.

  • by teh kurisu (701097) on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:43AM (#20780415) Homepage

    Erm, what uglyduckling said. I'm not against the provision of utilities by private entities (although I think it should always go through a nationalised wholesaler), but the government has a role in the setting up of the infrastructure which would otherwise be uneconomical, as a catalyst to further development.

  • WiFi security (Score:4, Insightful)

    by YrWrstNtmr (564987) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:03AM (#20780513)
    Would you give up your current home or work connection completely and use the muni WiFi for all your needs? Banking, paying bills, etc. Knowing the security issues of WIFi? I don't think I would.
    So if I'm going to pay for a personal access anyway, tell me why should I be thrilled at paying into the cities 'free' WiFi scheme?
  • by jav1231 (539129) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:16AM (#20780607)
    This article makes a simplistic argument but leaves out one other key reason: lawsuits. The big communication companies didn't just have an infrastructure in place for providing bandwidth, they had a litany of lawyers that often descended upon the municipality to attempt block them from providing these services.
  • by porkThreeWays (895269) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:24AM (#20780661)
    I work for a municipality and frankly, municipal wifi is #102,448 on our list of priorities. Why? It's SUPER expensive with very little benefit. My city has a population of almost 200,000. To cover a city of our size we'd literally need hundreds of access points @ a cost of millions of dollars. We are a technical staff of only about 10. Can you imagine 10 people being tasked with trying to maintain hundreds of access points? When you've got hundreds of anything electronic out in the field, a certain percentage is always going to be broken. So you've got this project that needs constant maintenance that's extremely expensive and resource intensive. If we're reaaaally lucky we may get 200 people using it on a regular basis. We're talking about a project of millions to benefit 200 people that probably already have internet access anyway.

    I don't know about you, but I'd much rather spend those millions to benefit a school and get educational software into Florida's failing schools. Or hell, open an entire new school so kids don't have to wake up an hour earlier to be bussed half way across the city. There are just so many way this money could be used better. That's why municipal wifi doesn't take off.
  • by osu-neko (2604) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:29AM (#20780691)

    Indeed. Much of the US would still be without power and telephone service today if it hadn't been for actions taken by the federal government. There was simply no economically viable way for private sector companies to provide such service to any place other than dense, urban areas. But as such services became more and more necessary to our way of life, those areas that didn't get it would become less and less viable as places for further development. For a government with an interest in seeing a flourishing of the country and economy, it made sense to get everyone wired in, so we subsidized heavily the process of deploying these networks. And viewed in terms of what we put in vs. the eventual tax revenue on a more robust economy, it more than paid for itself. But it required a massive public investment and a multi-decade long view to realize this. It's much like the interstate highway system. The amount of economic activity that it enables and encourages benefits everyone and almost certainly more than pays for itself, but it's really hard to quantify.

    I'm skeptical about whether the Internet falls into this same category, but I do have to object to the GP's historically naive assertion an entirely private-sector approach "works" for electricity. It didn't, and it's an excellent example of how government can be a catalyst for further development that ultimately benefits us all, if it does it right. TFA is an example of how it can do it wrong...

  • by BillEGoat (50068) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:53AM (#20780879) Homepage
    Muni WiFi shoud fail for the sake of free speech. It's always boggled my mind to see the amount of support on /. for muni WiFi. With the general (and healthy) distrust of government in this forum, why should we desire to ask a government to own and operate a primary channel of the public's communication? Do you really want mayors and governors loyal to the Bush administration to have significant say in who has access to look inside your internet connection?
  • by Luscious868 (679143) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:57AM (#20780909)

    Sucks to live in a backwater country. The rest of us are happy to download stupid Hollywood movies from Pirate Bay at 100 MBit/s using the municipal fiber network for 15$/month. :)

    Those of us who live in the such a so cold "backwater country" laugh that you actually believe you're only paying $15 dollars a month when you're really paying much more than that to download those stupid Hollywood movies when you factor in the extra tax money collected from you and used to subsidize the infrastructure.

    $15 dollars is a small percent of the actual cost you pay. You're just too stupid to understand that. You actually believe that when the goverment forcefully takes money from you and spends it to pay 80% of the cost of something and then charges you an additional 20% on top of that if you want to actually use what you've already partially paid for, that you're getting some kind of deal.

  • by superdude72 (322167) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:58AM (#20780917)
    As a San Francisco resident and Earthlink subscriber, I'm delighted the Wifi proposal flopped. First, as an Earthlink subscriber I knew they wouldn't deliver. Second, it was just another of these public/private partnerships that have been all the rage for the past 30 years or so, and which almost invariable promise the moon and the stars on a shoestring budget and then vanishes from everyone's consciousness. Building a public wifi network is really not that ambitious an undertaking. The Earthlink proposal was to cost how much? $20 million? That's a pittance for the city of San Francisco, which has an annual budget of more than a billion dollars. And that's to build the network, not for annual maintenance, which presumably would cost much less. It was absolutely pitiful that Gavin Newsom gave away such an important piece of infrastructure to a private company for such a puny sum. And it's because he's the sort of New Democrat that emerged in the '90s, beholden to corporate interests and afraid to be associated with anything that might smack of the Old Democrats--ie, the New Deal and the Great Society Democrats. Well, I wish he'd lose that fear. The New Deal produced the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. At the height of the Great Depression. Not bad, hm? If we'd had New Democrats running things back then, we'd probably all still be paying dearly to commute on private ferry services, because God forbid government try to do anything to make peoples' lives better when there is potential for private companies to make a profit.

    Municipal wifi is so cheap that there really is no reason we couldn't do that *and* build a fiber-optic network; I mean, it's an order of magnitude cheaper so why not do both. Fast networks are already crucial infrastructure, and will be even more so, particularly in a city that considers itself a capital of high tech. Private industry isn't going to get it done. So just step up and *lead* already. I can't believe I live in a rich, densely populated, supposed high-tech capital and the best broadband I can get for less than $100 a month is this shitty 1.5Mbps/384Kbps DSL!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 28, 2007 @08:49AM (#20781407)
    >> Second, you need to arrange your house based on where you can get a signal. My WAP is invisible from downstairs. I have to put the PC in an upstairs bedroom. And it's not the master bedroom. Once the kids go to bed, no more PC time for adults.

    >>I work in networking, so I was able to get a Linksys with DD-WRT and route that through the house. Less technical neighbors are SOL.

    Why the contradictory statements? Either you got it to work or you didn't. And since when was DD-WRT a requirement to run a Linksys box as an AP? If you really do work in networking then I wouldn't go round bragging that you can't run WIFI in your own home, if I were you. Apologies if you live in a lead-lined mansion...
  • by mini me (132455) on Friday September 28, 2007 @08:57AM (#20781469)
    If you had municipal wifi in place you could use the network to enable the kids to learn without the need for expensive classrooms. The desire to maintain the status quo instead of looking forward to where we could be in the future is what is holding back municipal wifi.
  • by DavidShor (928926) * <supergeek717.gmail@com> on Friday September 28, 2007 @09:58AM (#20782261) Homepage
    "There are certain services that may not be profitable to provide, but are nevertheless overwhelmingly in the public interest to provide."

    Yes, there are(education for example). But I believe these services are very rare, and electricity is not one of them.

    "Sure, and people on the poor side of town should just move into the rich neighborhoods, since private industry certainly isn't going to waste money wiring areas where the demand and ability to pay isn't high enough."

    If people on the poor side of town think of a good way to utilize this infrastructure, then they can raise some capital and buy some property where there is infrastructure.

    If land values are high enough so that capital costs would be prohibitive, they could raise capital to pay a power company to give them service. If the costs are too high, well, then the idea was not productive enough, and society would be poorer overall if it was carried out.

    And don't change the argument, within cities, DSL is available in even the poorest areas. The poor in the US are still relatively affluent, and it is still very profitable for infrastructure companies to cover them.

  • Re:WiFi security (Score:4, Insightful)

    by wurp (51446) on Friday September 28, 2007 @10:33AM (#20782829) Homepage
    First, banking & paying bills are done over SSL, which is built *expecting* there to be man in the middle attacks, and it is not vulnerable to such. In other words, that's secure, whether going over wifi or whatever.

    For other stuff, VPNs/ssl tunnels/whatever are fairly easy to put together, and I agree someone should do that so your browsing isn't transparent to anyone within 100 meters of you.
  • by Mister Whirly (964219) on Friday September 28, 2007 @02:22PM (#20786499) Homepage
    That is because Minneapolis is smart, and are NOT trying to be an ISP. They took bids from outside companies to provide the hardware and tech support, and provided them with the places to put all the hardware. And at $29.95 /month for 6MB download speed, they are going to give Comcast and Qwest a run for their money. Will be interesting to see if cable and DSL will drop their prices to try and compete. I just wish Verizon would bring FIOS here...
  • by Watts Martin (3616) <layotl@@@gmail...com> on Friday September 28, 2007 @02:24PM (#20786529) Homepage

    And don't change the argument, within cities, DSL is available in even the poorest areas. The poor in the US are still relatively affluent, and it is still very profitable for infrastructure companies to cover them.
    DSL's availability is a matter of demographics, but that isn't the same as affluence -- it's all about rate of return. Upgrading a central office to support DSL is a very expensive proposition for a phone company, and they need to get a certain number of subscriptions to justify it (obviously). A densely-populated urban area is a better investment than a subdivision where all the homes are on quarter-acre lots; even if the subdivision's per-household income is much higher than the urban area's and the percentage of overall subscribers in the population will be substantially greater there, there are just so many damn more people in the urban area that the rate of return is going to be much higher. This was an issue a few years ago back in Celebration, Florida, a planned "new urban" community owned by Disney: as it turned out, all of Celebration was served by one CO, and Sprint didn't have any interest in upgrading it to DSL. As rich as the average Celebration resident was, there just weren't enough of them to justify the cost.

    This is what previous posters have been trying to get across when they were mentioning the Rural Electrification Projects of the early 20th century. Private power and telephone companies saw no profit in running utility lines out to farm country, where you might have a home every acre (or every five or ten!); the upshot is that rural customers who had any service at all would be paying three or four times as much as urban dwellers for it. This was addressed by private-public partnerships and utility co-ops, some of which still exist to this day.

    No offense, but your argument seems to exhibit a particular kind of libertarian naivete which refuses to admit the existence of indirect benefits. You, personally, may be poorer by the amount of the surcharge on your power bill still funding such projects, and indeed you are probably being denied a full meal at Chili's annually (if the taxes are particularly onerous in your area, you may even be denied a margarita with that meal), but you, personally, have almost certainly reaped much more indirect benefit from farmers who have utility service. Like other private-public partnerships where government has intervened to do things like build the railroads and the interstate system, the point is that if you stop thinking of societal infrastructure as a profit center in and of itself and instead as something that is, broadly speaking, part of the general welfare, the indirect return on that investment in terms of efficiency, opening markets, and creating whole new ones vastly exceeds the capital spent on the infrastructure.

    Back on the actual topic of the Slashdot post (gasp), I think a previous poster hit the nail on the head -- municipal wi-fi networks tend not to work because they really aren't societal infrastructure in the way electricity, sewer, and roads are. They're not even necessary if you grant that internet access is becoming critical infrastructure (just plug into the damn ethernet jack, son). And suddenly, you're not arguing for a subsidized basic service or even a subsidized forward-thinking visionary plan with room for debate, you're arguing for a government-provided luxury. That's gonna raise hackles across the political spectrum.

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