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Municipal Wi-Fi: A Devil's Choice

Free municipal Wi-Fi networks may sound like a good idea, but this article serves as a good reminder of what folks should really expect from their government's efforts....

Free municipal Wi-Fi networks may sound like a good idea, but this article serves as a good reminder of what folks should really expect from their government's efforts. The article details the Wi-Fi woes of St. Cloud, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, which has tried to launch the first free Wi-Fi network. Similar networks are planned for San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and other cities, but St. Cloud's is the first free implementation.

And the report card hasn't been good. More than a month after the network's launch, dead spots and weak signals have meant that many St. Cloud residents still pay for their own Internet access. The municipality has spent more than $2 million to free local schools and businesses from Internet bills, only to deliver a service that has little better than dial-up speeds, if it works at all. This before the municipality has grappled with the looming legislative battles .

Proponents of the plan put the troubles off to typical deployment problems, but the real issue may lie with the very premise itself. "Wi-Fi was designed as a small-cell contention-based LAN protocol," says Dave Molta, director of the center for emerging network technologies at Syracuse University and senior technology editor at Network Computing. "There are bound to be issues when you try to extend that kind of system to the metro area, especially in unlicensed frequency bands."

I think Molta is dead on. Instead of trying to appeal to people and attract votes through cheap tricks, like seeing who's the more "techno-savvy" candidate, politicians should lay out for their constituents just how hard deploying a municipal wireless network can be and that perhaps waiting for some of the newer wireless technologies is the better course.

At the same time, municipalities should still give it a go, if for no other reason than to prompt service providers to improve their own broadband offers. At the end of the day, if it???s a choice of rooting for politicians or services providers, I'd rather take the devil whose feet I can at least hold to the fire every couple of years.

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