The egos surrounding muni-WiFi

The egos surrounding muni-WiFi
Ouch. It hasn't been a very good week in the muni-WiFi space--a segment that is already reeling from bad publicity. We already know the industry is in an adjustment period as vendors everywhere realize that governments need to step up and share the risk as anchor tenants.

The public-access model is now questionable. But many cities aren't getting it yet, and they are pouting and going home when vendors want them to foot some money. Chicago was the latest to balk at anchor-tenant provisions EarthLink and competitor AT&T (see story No. 2)

Vendors are going home too. EarthLink, the biggest proponent in the past of the public-access concept, eliminated some 900 jobs, closed offices in markets where EarthLink had plans for muni-WiFi projects and dropped out of the long-delayed muni-WiFi plans in San Francisco. And with Chicago gone, AT&T is now quitting plans to build a 30-square-mile mesh network in Springfield, Ill. AT&T itself hasn't issued any statement but local and state politicians in Illinois said they still hope to salvage some sort of free wireless service in the state capital area.

In light of these major announcements, we will continue to see the media hammer the muni-WiFi space, questioning its survival. Still, many cities exist that are doing muni-WiFi the rational way. They just aren't making themselves too well known. It appears the most successful deployments to date involve some way of wirelessly enabling a government process or program of some sort, such as video surveillance and meter reading--which offer a solid ROI.

Will this modified approach catch on with those politicians who heavily promised WiFi for the masses? As muni-WiFi analyst Craig Settles says: "There were a lot of politicians who put their ego on the line because they promised free access. Now they are claiming a bait and switch on the part of vendors. These vendors promised them, but that was when everyone was drinking the KoolAid. Now it's sunrise, and it hurts."

Unfortunately, egos may very well lead many more cities that were banking on the public-access play to go home and declare that muni-WiFi initiatives don't work. That's a shame given the fact we are seeing some real economic impact from muni-WiFi. Greene County, N.C., for instance, once devastated by the departure of the tobacco industry, can now attribute the turnaround in the county's high drop-out rate to its muni-WiFi initiative as students can learn online. And people are starting new online businesses. It's an example of a proper planning and a realistic expectation of the business model and technical capability.--Lynnette

PS: In recognition of Labor Day, FierceBroadbandWireless will be publishing Tuesday next week, instead of Monday. Enjoy the holiday weekend!