Muni Wi-Fi 2.0: This time, cities are getting smarter

Monica Alleven, FierceWirelessTechWhile it's mind boggling in this day and age that cities need to go through so many hoops to build their own broadband networks, it's encouraging to see what's being done in the area of municipal Wi-Fi.

Where they can, a lot of cities are laying fiber if they don't already have it, either on their own or with a service provider like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Fiber, and they're finding successful ways to pay for muni Wi-Fi and offer services to residents, visitors and businesses. One of the most ambitious examples is New York City, which is turning old phone booths into hotspots that are expected to bring in millions of dollars in revenue for the city through advertising.

A much smaller city--population 268,738--Lincoln, Neb., is another example of city leadership getting creative. Lincoln deployed its own gigabit fiber network in the city's downtown, which it shares with state government, the electric utility and the University of Nebraska. It leases capacity to telecom carriers, and it's not competing with incumbent service providers because it is not selling Wi-Fi to residents; it's giving it away.

The fiber is used as the backhaul for the Wi-Fi network, which is designed to provide not only free connections for residents and businesses but also for city government-oriented things like traffic cameras, parking and water meters. Mayor Chris Beutler has said it's the city's long-term goal to make Lincoln one of the most connected cities in the nation. The city works with multiple vendors, including Aruba Networks, Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Harris, Motorola Solutions, Ruckus Wireless and others.

David Young, fiber infrastructure and right of way manager for Lincoln, said the city needs to be competitive with other cities like Omaha, which is a much larger city, and to do that, it must provide Wi-Fi in places where the university students, recent grads and others congregate. It's not unheard of for 90,000 people to gather at the university's stadium for Huskers' game day--and fans expect their Instagrams and social media status updates to work.

It also goes back to retaining its population. "If we get 1 percent more to stay and work and live in Lincoln, then our city continues to grow," Young told FierceWirelessTech. Conversely, if the city loses 1 percent, that will have an impact on the community and its ability to thrive.

A similar thing is happening in the much larger city of San Jose, the third largest city in California. The city pioneered a public-private partnership to deploy one of the fastest Wi-Fi networks available in the nation using state-of-the-art technology developed in Silicon Valley. The city is also among the leaders in HotSpot 2.0, which it started deploying earlier this year along with the city of San Francisco.

The city realized it needed to do something that both takes advantage of the wealth of tech knowledge living in and around its boundaries, and made an all-hands-on-deck effort to become a model Smart City. It's putting sensors into everything from traffic lights to parking meters.

San Jose justifies its investment in part through the analytics it collects. For example, the city can measure differences in air quality in different parts of the city and communicate that in real time to the public. Future apps include mobile offload of video from both police cars and uniformed police officers with body-mounted cameras, which is exactly the kind of technology a lot of cities across the country could use.

As Ruckus Wireless CEO Selina Lo points out, that there's an always-on expectation in our culture that wasn't there maybe even five years ago. Wi-Fi speeds are much faster than they used to be, and it actually works. Rather than laptops, people are connecting more often with smartphones and tablets, which are a lot easier to use in most public spaces.

"I also see it's becoming a symbol of quality of life in the city," whether the city is offering Wi-Fi to residents or trying to encourage more business in a downtown area, she told FierceWirelessTech. San Jose, for example, is deploying Wi-Fi in part so that the retail stores and cafes don't have to do it on their own.

If there's any pushback, it's where you might expect it. Politics is always the big challenge.  Cities have different styles of government and the ones that have a more streamlined decision-making system are usually easier to navigate versus those that have a less centralized system.

One thing is for sure: Lo doesn't think cities are avoiding Wi-Fi this time around because it failed so tremendously and in so many places the first time. People understand failures come before successes, and muni Wi-Fi is no longer a solution looking for a problem. "I don't think there is any shadow anymore," she said. "Everyone understands the world has changed."

How big of a business does metro Wi-Fi represent for a company like Ruckus? At this stage, it's a very small percentage, "but we think we are just in the very beginning of this trend," she said. How big it eventually becomes is anyone's guess, but the company already has done some form of business with at least 17 municipalities in the U.S. and the U.K. And that, as they say, is a drop in the bucket, leaving a whole lot of cities and towns for both Ruckus and its competitors.--Monica

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