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Waiting on Free, Citywide Wi-fi? Don't Hold Your Breath
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By Rich Karpinski

It doesn't cost a lot, nor is it exceedingly complex, to add wireless Internet access to your small office. But roll it out across an entire city? The costs, and the technical challenges, add up quickly.

That's what wireless providers and cities are finding as so-called municipal wi-fi project -- launched with such hope and fanfare -- have started to grind to a halt in recent weeks and months.

Among the cities turning off, or at least scaling back, citywide wi-fi projects: Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Springfield, Ill., Cincinnati and St. Louis, according to USA Today.




The problem is that despite the best of intentions, the vendors building these systems are finding it hard to turn a profit and the cities are running into practical problems like finding adequate spots to place new antennas or cheap power to keep such systems running.

Slate magazine describes some of the problems, wondering why municipal wi-fi networks have been such a flop:


The basic idea of offering Internet access as a public service is sound. The problem is that cities haven't thought of the Internet as a form of public infrastructure thatólike subway lines, sewers, or roadsómust be paid for. Instead, cities have labored under the illusion that, somehow, everything could be built easily and for free by private parties. That illusion has run straight into the ancient economics of infrastructure and natural monopoly. The bottom line: City dwellers won't be able to get high-quality wireless Internet access for free. If they want it, collectively, they'll have to pay for it.


Not all reports on the future of municipal wi-fi are so dire. But like most "utility" services, public wi-fi would work best if there wasn't a competitive private market waiting to serve the same users. But there is.

Carrier data services, including wi-fi hot spots (and soon more power WiMax coverage) as well as 3G broadband data services are proliferating, and become cheaper by the day. With some carriers, such data services can run just $15 to $20 per month per user.

Not as good as free, but not bad. For small businesses that need to eat up bandwidth outside the office, those services are the better alternative rather than waiting for city governments to answer the call.






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