FEATURE: Roam wasn't built in a day

Roam wasn't built in a day
iPass CEO Ken Denman argues that muni-WiFi deployments to sync up as an ecosystem of hotspots before they can gain the support of businesses

This week, Google and EarthLink combined proposals to build a municipal WiFi network in San Francisco--shining a brighter spotlight on the already closely watched municipal WiFi market. 

With major American cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Portland and Houston soliciting proposals to build municipal, high-speed, wireless Internet networks for use by the city and residents, the benefits of these wireless networks to communities has been spoken of often. City infrastructure, from parking meters to public safety, promises to become more efficient when connected to City Hall by a city-controlled network. Residents could receive free or low-cost WiFi. These "unwired" cities hold the promise of becoming more attractive to people and businesses alike.

However, the discussion lacks the viewpoints of businesses and the millions of mobile and remote workers. Business use has driven the growth of WiFi. Industry research firm IDC estimates there are more than 50 million mobile business users in the U.S. The continued adoption of WiFi by municipalities will make it even more convenient for business users to "go mobile" whenever they can.

The mobile workforce represents a potential and significant revenue source for the operators of citywide networks. City-wide and region-wide networks can take advantage of these WiFi "power users" to subsidize other services in their communities, such as free access in public spaces and low-income areas. Without the support of medium-to-large businesses, these municipal WiFi projects will not succeed in the long term.

What do business users need from municipal WiFi? Business users demand that such networks be secure and easy to use. And, because so many employees are mobile, they also require that Internet connectivity is available everywhere. By everywhere, I mean the connectivity service must enable employees to access the Internet in any location outside of the office as easily as in their office headquarters. To accomplish this feat, each municipal WiFi network must find a way to work with other networks both inside and outside their civic boundaries-- to offer business users true roaming.

Current municipal projects have addressed the ease-of-use and security hurdles. The roaming obstacle is more complex because it requires the networks to band together, or be aggregated in a "network of networks." If this does not occur, I believe that many corporations will not be supportive of their local municipal WiFi networks and choose to work with the myriad of existing providers already offering service at important locations throughout a city. Simply put, businesses may be unwilling to pay for a service that stops at the city limits.

What is the challenge posed by a network that serves only a single geographic area? Anyone who has been trapped on the main Bay Area corridor, Highway 101, during rush hour can tell you that people don't always live and work in the same city. In fact, many employees do not live and work in the same state. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that America's largest 1000 companies have as many as 590 corporate locations--each. This means the Fortune 1000 businesses headquartered in any given city will likely have thousands of corporate locations located beyond city, state or national boundaries.

For municipal networks to be embraced by businesses, and succeed as a service for pay, they must participate in an ecosystem of hotspots. This "network of networks" that I referenced earlier should include other municipal WiFi networks and the private networks of hotspots already in place around the country. It should also be able to accommodate the new wireless technologies--like 3G and WiMax--that are expected to be incorporated into networks over the next few years.

A wireless service must offer security, ease-of-use and ubiquity to business users in order to be both a successful revenue generator and an important economic development asset for a city. When this is achieved, city-wide and region-wide wireless networks can begin to scale to meet the needs of the entire community, now and in the future.

Ken Denman is CEO, president and chairman of iPass.