Cornell University Johnson at Cornell University

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Unified communications: linking devices and industries

Emerging trend: Municipal Wi-Fi

by Alan Breznick

Philadelphia's doing it. So are Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, and Atlanta. Even Paris is jumping into the game.

These cities and many others in the United States and around the world are designing and building municipal wireless Internet access systems. Commonly known as "muni Wi-Fi" networks, these publicly owned systems seek to use high-speed Wi-Fi technology to deliver
Artist's portrayal of global high-speed Wi-Fi communication
free and/or low-cost service to residents citywide.

Led by such pioneers as Philadelphia and Anaheim, Calif., more than 300 municipalities across the country are planning or already offering Wi-Fi networks for their citizens. In February, Los Angeles joined the burgeoning club when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled plans to build a citywide Wi-Fi system over the next two years.

With the trend spreading so fast, it has become almost unhip for a city not to be delving into muni Wi-Fi, even if it might actually be cheaper to subsidize universal Internet access with such existing technologies as plain old copper phone wire.

"It's definitely sexier than getting everybody on dialup, even though that's tried-and-true technology and the equipment is commoditized," said Brad Treat, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Johnson School. But, he wonders, "Is it the most economical way to do it?"

Despite already stretched budgets, local governments of all stripes and sizes are plunging ahead with muni Wi-Fi networks for numerous reasons. Public officials view wireless broadband access as a way to bridge the digital divide between higher- and lower-income residents, boost their local economies by aiding small businesses, beef up such key public services as police, fire, and emergency help, and cut their communications costs.

"It seems like an infrastructure thing," said Aija Leiponen, assistant professor of applied economics and management in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "In some ways, the Internet is becoming [a utility] like electricity."

But cities are running into strong opposition from powerful private-sector interests. In particular, incumbent broadband service providers such as large phone companies and cable operators, threatened by the trend, are lobbying state and local governments against building and operating competitive high-speed networks.

In Philadelphia, Verizon Communications and Comcast Corp. both campaigned against the city's wireless initiative. Although they failed to block it, they did succeed in convincing the Pennsylvania state legislature to stop other cities from offering commercial Wi-Fi service unless a local broadband provider refused to do so first.

"There will be some strong market forces against it," Treat said. "Companies like Verizon are really going to push against it."

While other tech companies such as AT&T, Google, Earthlink, and IBM are now getting involved in building and operating public wireless networks, industry experts caution that cities face a host of other challenges as well. To make their networks operate effectively, local governments must secure the rights to local street light and electric power poles for their antennas, and conquer potential interference problems from private business networks, mobile phones, garage-door openers, and other electronic gadgets using the unlicensed public airwaves. They also must build, operate, maintain, and keep secure thousands of access points across their domains.

In addition, industry experts warn that cities must find ways to upgrade their municipal wireless systems to keep them competitive with constantly upgrading private networks, while simultaneously keeping prices from becoming too expensive for the low-income residents and small businesses being targeted.

"It's a difficult business model," Leiponen said. "It doesn't seem there's a commercial value proposition for any broader implementation of Wi-Fi in cities."

As a result, some industry analysts doubt that muni Wi-Fi networks will catch on very widely. For example, Strategy Analytics projects that no more than 6 million homes, or about 5 percent of all U.S. households, will have access to public broadband networks by 2010, predicting also that most consumers will choose low-cost or free public networks as a secondary, not primary, source of Internet access.