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Wireless Networking Communications The Internet Hardware

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

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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  • No money = no wifi (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gihan_ripper ( 785510 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @05:54AM (#20779975) Homepage

    It's a no-brainer to see why municipal wi-fi wouldn't work without significant investment. I'd guess we're talking about millions of dollars even for smallish towns. And yes, the last mile (or even the last few feet) can be a real problem.

    I was recently at a conference in Göttingen (Germany). My hotel room had wifi (that I paid for). Still the connection was intermittent and had tiny bandwidth, even though the router was in the hall outside. One morning, I had to start an x-terminal session to a computer at my home university to run Mathematica. The connection was so slow that I just gave up and went to use the local campus machines.

    It would be nice to have free wifi, and maybe this could work as a low quality service for those who can't afford anything better, but for the moment, I can only see this happening through increased taxation, and probably only in the richer neighbourhoods.

    I'd say the reality for communal wifi is that it could work on a much smaller scale to begin with. Maybe a street could pool together some money to pay for local wifi and lock it in with WPA passphrases. We might eventually see a network of these streets, building Municipal wifi one block at a time.

  • Re:Long story short: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Bios_Hakr ( 68586 ) <> on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:02AM (#20780001)
    I live in a gated community that opted for wireless over DSL/FiOS. I think it's been a failure because it downright sucks.

    For starters, you need WAPs everywhere. At least one every 100' if you are using the smaller (12" omni) antennas. Even then, trees and rain cause severe signal loss.

    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.

    Finally, once the city starts doing the networking, competition will leave. Soon, committees will suggest getting filtering software. After all, public money can't subsidize smut. Or religion. Or hate speech. Pretty soon, the only unblocked sites will be What will the power users to then?

    Overall, our solution works okay. I make a lot of money on the side installing boosters and antennas and routers. I also get calls constantly when the signals drop. During heavy rain, I just turn my phone off. Try explaining propagation fade to Sally Soccermom...
  • one word - cost.. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by eniac42 ( 1144799 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:03AM (#20780011) Journal
    Whenever I have seen the costs for these sort of schemes, I wonder whether the town/council are getting value for money. I think the best way is for local government to encourage local places that have net access anyway to provide a free service, in return for support, equipment or some small subsidy, rather than the over ambitious million-dollar schemes some places try for - I doubt they get the subscriptions back to pay for it all. If that works out to be popular, then expand it..
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:07AM (#20780029)
    I think the size of the cities also has an effect. For example here in Oulu, Finland, the panoulu [] network works extremely well and covers most of the city center and all of the university. On the other hand there are only around 125000 citizens. But maybe something to take a look at, many of the people behind panoulu are constantly zooming around the world at various conferences.
  • Wrong Approach (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Televiper2000 ( 1145415 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @06:51AM (#20780205)
    The fact is they are trying to give away for free what most people don't really care to pay for yet. There's still a general perception that wireless is not a robust and reliable system. Aside from that the people who are able to take advantage of a municipal internet system are usually the sane ones that can afford a more reliable wired connection anyway. The private sector will be investing in their own open wireless systems to give access to people working in the downtown areas. It just makes more sense to invest that money into providing better public access at libraries, community centers, schools, and local business associations (who want to provide Wi-Fi at their coffee shops etc) than an city wide wi-fi system. WI-FI isn't quite ready for prime time. Today a city wide WI-FI is noble, but it's not a practical investment.
  • It's obvious... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mysticalfruit ( 533341 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:20AM (#20780325) Homepage Journal
    At first blush it sounds like a really great idea. Get a couple DSL lines, hook them to AP's, turn off all the security so everybody can access it and your golden.

    However, once people realize the current limitations of AP's and how much infrastructure behind the whole thing that needs to be put into place and how much it's going to cost to put that infrastructure in place, they run screaming from the project.

    Here's what a town should do...

    1. Don't try to put wifi everywhere, instead focus on places like downtown. Realize that your going to have to put *some* infrastructure in, but encourage businesses to install AP's through tax incentives. Come to understand that places that you going to have to put wifi is going to be expensive because the cost of the gear (outdoor AP's are expensive)
    2. For everywhere else, subsidize it. Hire someone who knows what their doing and come up with an equipment list that a household would need to become part of the wifi network. (my thinking is that it would be a specific router with a specific config). Then send mail to your local citizens offering a tax credit to anybody who installs an access point. Heck you could even purchase them in some ridiculous quanitity that you could resell to make a profit.

    Note, the only thing I haven't addressed in this scenario is technical support and the fact that many telecom companies have issues with them using their service to give service to others. Though I suppose as long as your not making a profit, they really can't say much.

    Just my idea.
  • Oooh, oooh, I know! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:38AM (#20780397)
    Is it because corporations lobby against it because it chips away at their obscene profits?
  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:46AM (#20780421)
    Infrastructure that works well, cannot be duild by private companies. It requires an investor that has very long-term goals. That would, in this case, be the city. It will still be there in decades and it cannot just vanish into bankrupcy because of faulty planning. So it has a real interest in getting it right. Of course it cost money. Of course it takes time. But this is one arena where the great "private investors will do it" myth of the US fails, and badly.

    Why do you think there are no collapsing bridges or ditches in Europe? Not because people there are smarter, but because the idea of planning for decades ahead has been learned by countless desasters in the past. The US settlers could have taken that lesson with them. Instead my impression is that infrastrucure is build on a level that suggests people do not really plan to stay long in one place.
  • Re:one word - cost.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ( 936869 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @07:46AM (#20780423) Homepage
    I live in St. Cloud, FL. City managers tell us that our taxes are essentially $300/year lower because they provide Internet access (estimated that we would normally pay $25/month to an ISP).

    However, I only know of one person who can actually get the service in his home. The WAPs are too spread out to get coverage unless you are outside. Or unless your are downtown, they have them concentrated there.

    I cannot get the WiFi from my home, so I still have to pay for my own Internet access.

    So, not only am I not saving those $300, I am actually spending an additional $300.

    If a city is going to charge everyone in the city for a service, they better provide it to everyone in that city. Kinda like garbage service... I don't see anyone in the city not getting their garbage picked up.

    I was cool with it when they only provided it downtown (the pilot program). It was sort of an economic boost for the businesses there, but it was a waste of money to deploy it for the entire city.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 28, 2007 @08:32AM (#20780709)
    I would consider using a public wifi system, but how much anonymity will it provide?

    The primary attraction for me is that I could download content that would normally
    have the police kicking my door down because of public hysteria created by
    mouth-breather, soccer-mom types.

    I think many, many people feel the same way I do. We live in an age when downloading
    a couple images can land you in prison for years and years. Public wifi seems like
    a possible solution.
  • by zerofoo ( 262795 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @09:11AM (#20781027)
    802.11 networks were never designed for large area deployments. Wi-Fi was designed to be used in short range applications - a nice convenience that augments the functionality of a wired LAN.

    I've done a few medium-size wireless deployments and the core problem with 802.11 is that you need to drag a wire to each access-point....and in a city, you need a lot of access-points. Management of these huge networks is a solvable problem (Meru and Cisco have done a pretty good job with that).

    Sure there are mesh-network technologies like Ricochet (remember them?), and WiMax is around the corner - these technologies are actually designed to cover very large areas to minimize the amount of access-points and cable runs. These technologies might be more promising.

    In the end, municipalities need to fork over the cash, and implement the correct technology to make this succeed. Without cash and good decisions, these wi-fi projects are doomed.

  • by Bios_Hakr ( 68586 ) <> on Friday September 28, 2007 @09:11AM (#20781035)
    Well, we already pay $50 per month for wireless access. I just happened to have a WRT-54g laying around. For me, it isn't a problem.

    But to tell most people that they need to purchase additional equipment; they balk at that.

    Also, the provider advised that too many repeaters would just degrade the already-weak signal. I have no idea if that's true or not.
  • by FecesFlingingRhesus ( 806117 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @09:21AM (#20781129)
    I can say that both technically and politically St. Cloud went about it the right way. The government did not sell it as an access for everyone network. They sold it as a business sector network that would encourage businesses to look at St. Cloud as a home base. For those of you not familiar with Central Florida there are a lot of outlying cities around Orlando like St. Cloud, each of these cities are trying to become the next small business sector in much the way that Winter Park did. St. Cloud positioned its network as a system to reduce the costs of opening a business in the Central Florida area and by doing so planed on the increased revenue from new businesses to offset the cost of the network. In turn this gave access to the citizens without them having to bear the brunt of the cost. The strategy was a political risk but it seems to have paid off. The network had its problems in the beginning but I currently use it daily without outages. So much so that last year I moved my phone off of a traditional line and onto SunRocket (that's another story). My call quality was excellent and I paid $200 a year for phone and nothing for internet access which used to be $70 a month for both. I believe we are now at a 77% adoption rate which I believe speaks to the opinion of the system. In all though I believe that it is all in how you position the implementation and how you sell it to the people. St. Cloud had a good strategy which paid off. It was a gamble for them but it worked out in the end.
  • Re:Long story short: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Homr Zodyssey ( 905161 ) on Friday September 28, 2007 @12:29PM (#20783757) Journal
    By your logic all of humanity should live in one giant megalopolis.

    The problem is that economies of scale don't always apply...there is also the law of diminishing returns. As a city gets larger, it needs more raw materials. Growing food usually requires land. Requiring more food means requiring more land. So, the food must come from further and further away. If everyone lives in the city, the food producers must travel a long ways to get to work. Same for the coal-miners whoa re integral to our power grid. And the tree-farmers who produce wood for our homes, furniture and paper. And the Cotton-farmers who produce the materials our clothes are made of.

    So, you think all of these people should quit their "inefficient" jobs and move to the city -- where everyone will be cold, naked, hungry and living in caves.

    No, these jobs are necessary for our civilization. For efficiency, these people need to be near their work. And they need to be near enough to population centers to provide their products to the rest of us. So, our population centers must be more numerous and spread out.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken