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Thumbs Down on Muni Wi-Fi

Free or low-cost municipal Wi-Fi projects, like the kind planned for San Francisco and Philadelphia, attract a lot of attention. The problem is, these deployments rarely work as advertised. I talked about this a bit in my April 27 column, but I'll follow up here, since it's clearly a hot topic.

A recent story in the Associated Press quoted users frustrated by their inability to connect to a free, city-run Wi-Fi network in St. Cloud, Fla. Users who can get access complain of painfully slow connections. That's because Wi-Fi was never intended for a metro area. And problems will arise when you use unlicensed frequency with which your neighbor's wireless network can interfere.

Public leaders garner support for these projects by pandering to digital divide folks on the left and economic development folks on the right. But politicians aren't the only ones to blame for overpromising and underdelivering. Equipment vendors and consultants tell civic leaders metro Wi-Fi is cheap and easy to install, and roll out pilot projects with low user density that don't represent the needs required for blanket coverage.

Cities that want to offer free or low-priced wireless as an alternative to expensive connections sold by telcos and service providers are to be applauded. But wireless broadband can never be competitive with wired alternatives. Buildout costs are much higher and it's difficult to scale services if demand increases.