The muni WiFi game continues, although at a scale much reduced from its heyday a few years ago. Indeed, many industry watchers have ratcheted down their muni WiFi expectations to the point that any buildout whatsoever can be considered a relative success.
"You can't really make money from it as a standalone," explained Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com. Vos said WiFi deployments will never make big bucks from end users paying a monthly service fee, but instead from police using it to monitor remote video cameras, cellular carriers using it to offload 3G data traffic, coffee shops using it to attract thirsty patrons, utilities using it to monitor meters, and so on. "WiFi earns its money a different way," she said.
And what happened to the concerns that city-wide WiFi deployments might cut into the data revenues of the wireless operators? In some respects, it appears to be a valid concern. "Some of our critical public-safety applications required redundant wireless connectivity, but the cellular data cards have remained virtually unused and handle less than 1 percent of our traffic, which has resulted in significant cost savings for the city," said Mark Meier, chief technology officer for Oklahoma City, which owns and uses a 555-square-mile WiFi network.
However, for the most part, city-wide WiFi "is just a drop in the bucket," MuniWireless.com's Vos said. Eric DaVersa, vice president of business development at NetLogix, agreed. DaVersa, who oversaw NetLogix's muni WiFi deployment with the city of Maywood, Calif., said that wired Internet vendors face a much greater threat since their services are as stationary as the hotspots in Maywood's WiFi deployment.
Indeed, that may well be the impetus of Cablevision's WiFi rollout on the East Coast. The company in June announced that its broadband customers have accessed the Internet more than 2 million times for free over its Optimum WiFi service, and are averaging more than 1 million minutes online per day since the debut of the offering in the fall of last year.
And such rollouts may well be geared to match increased demand. Vos pointed out that the nation's growing smartphone population in some cases relies on WiFi as a sought-after supplement to sometimes overloaded 3G networks.
"The users are really asking for it," she said.
But most of those playing in the muni WiFi market agree that WiFi as a technology is destined to stand as one of many options for city-wide deployments. Indeed, NetLogix in May announced the launch of a WiMAX municipal wireless network for the city of Corona, Calif., and IPWireless in June announced its UMTS mobile broadband technology has achieved "full system acceptance by the city of New York for its city-wide, multi-agency wireless network."
"It is pretty clear that any solution for an area or city is going to make use of multiple technologies," said Settles.
A final factor playing into the municipal wireless game is the federal government's broadband stimulus package, which aims to funnel around $7 billion into deployments across the country. Some hope that municipal buildouts will enjoy a boost due to the funds--indeed, Motorola claims it is working with around a dozen cities across the country on such proposals, though it declined to name them--but Settles cautions that the government's stipulations on the money may channel it toward rural deployments instead of municipal ones.
Thus, the muni WiFi story goes on, albeit in bits and pieces.
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