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Muni Wi-Fi gains a dose of pragmatism

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The updated public Wi-Fi network announced by San Jose, Calif., has been heralded as the second coming of municipal Wi-Fi. That's still an unproven notion, but one thing the city's plan does show is that new muni Wi-Fi networks won't be anything like their predecessors.

About five years ago, muni Wi-Fi networks were crashing and burning as they failed to match the utopian hype that had been built up around them. Muni Wi-Fi networks were envisioned to offer free or low-cost wireless broadband service throughout a city to residents, particularly those who were economically disadvantaged, and visitors, often with browser-based advertising support underwriting network costs.

There were two main problems with that plan: It was impossible to cost-effectively blanket large metropolitan areas with 802.11b/g, and pretty much no one was buying the ads being sold on the public Wi-Fi networks. Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco were among the many high-profile locales that set aside their lofty muni Wi-Fi plans.

San Jose jumped on the hotspot bandwagon in 2004 by outsourcing an inadequate, ad-supported Wi-Fi network to MetroFi , which subsequently shut its doors in 2008. Now San Jose is replacing that outdated public Wi-Fi network with a snazzy new 802.11n network supplied by network vendor Ruckus Wireless and wireless integrator SmartWave Technologies.

San Jose says it is deploying its new outdoor Wi-Fi network (and note the focus on outdoor, in a subtle admission that Wi-Fi signals aren't great at penetrating indoors) primarily to provide connections for city workers and city services such as wireless parking meters and traffic guidance signs. The city is reportedly prepared to pay $94,000 for the network, which will cost $22,000 a year to maintain.

San Jose's free public wireless broadband service will ride on the Wi-Fi network's expected excess capacity. The city isn't planning to make money off of the network through advertising, as was the case with its older Wi-Fi network, though it claims it might cut some deals with businesses that want secure access to the network or even with mobile operators that are looking for ways to offload traffic from their macro networks.

The city is being pragmatic in suggesting such deals would amount to icing on the cake rather than being a requirement for the Wi-Fi network to successfully operate. That's wise, because many mobile operators would prefer to offload macro cellular traffic to their own Wi-Fi hotspots rather than to a third party's.

That does not mean San Jose's new network won't attract data traffic from smartphone users. Mobidia Technology and Informa Telecoms & Media released research last month showing Wi-Fi accounted for 70 percent of all smartphone-originated traffic within the sampled user base and said 91 percent of smartphone owners used their handsets to connect to Wi-Fi. So, while it's clear that San Jose's revamped Wi-Fi network will attact smartphone and tablet users, it's less clear that the city stands to make money from cutting offloading deals with mobile operators.

So, does San Jose's revamped muni Wi-Fi network signal a resurgence in the sector? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly true that varying levels of government worldwide are deploying hotspots to engage the public with broadband Internet access. For instance, the government of Thailand recently deployed 20,000 Wi-Fi hot zones across Bangkok in government offices, police stations, municipal buildings and hospitals as part of its Smart Thailand program. The Thai government plans an additional 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots for Bangkok by October 2012 and up to 250,000 nationwide by 2015.

But it seems that for every muni Wi-Fi success story, there's another hotspot train wreck. The government of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, recently discontinued WirelessKL, the municipal wireless network it launched in 2008, and subsequently announced that it would instead require all privately owned restaurants, pubs and clubs larger than 120-square meters to offer Wi-Fi access to their patrons for free or a reasonable fee starting in April.

Not only does that add an uncomfortable twist to the notion of public Wi-Fi, but it shows once again that not all governments have the smarts or wherewithal to pull off a financially viable muni Wi-Fi network operation over the long term.--Tammy