Can Ruckus, San Jose Revive Municipal Wi-Fi?

San Jose's downtown is newly awash in Wi-Fi from Ruckus Wireless. But is a catchy slogan and established technology enough to triumph in the failure-prone municipal wireless space?

March 19, 2013

3 Min Read
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In March 2012, Ruckus announced it would bring free wireless networking to downtown San Jose. Just last week, Ruckus and San Jose's city leaders publicly christened the new WLAN by cutting a ceremonial Ethernet cable.

Declaring that "wickedly fast" wireless had arrived in San Jose, Ruckus' 802.11n rollout is trying to reinvigorate the municipal Wi-Fi paradigm. But if history is any guide, the odds aren't good.

On paper, municipal Wi-Fi sounds great. Residents, businesses and visitors can get fast Internet access, and the city gets to look progressive and high-tech. But governments often blunder into areas in which they have no expertise; without good (or honest) technology partners, local governments can find themselves holding an expensive bag.

Wireless networks are not cheap, and they don't just get turned on and left unattended. They require monitoring and service. And when potential users have other broadband technologies available, including carrier data plans for mobile devices, a taxpayer-funded wireless service can be hard to justify. Finally, support for municipal Wi-Fi can vanish when administrations change.

Municipal Wi-Fi projects also have a spotty record. Two high-profile failures include Seattle's community wireless service, which shut down last year. Philadelphia's attempt to bring low-cost wireless access to city residents was scrapped in 2008.

Municipal projects can also run afoul of service-provider-sponsored legislation. For instance, in 2004, local ISPs, citing competition from Philly's proposed network, were able to get a law on the books in Pennsylvania (HB 30) that required municipalities to offer the local incumbent provider the right of first refusal to provide high-speed service (scroll down to page 5). The law grandfathered in municipal broadband services up and running before Jan. 1st 2006.

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More recently, in 2012, South Carolina passed a law that protects incumbents such as AT&T from perceived competition from cities and towns that may want to get in community wireless game. Minnesota and Georgia also have either passed or proposed similar laws (though the bill in Georgia was defeated), and lobbyists are working hard to get out the message that muni-wireless isn't fair to existing ISPs.

Will San Jose's project have better luck than other muni efforts? It's hard to say, because each municipal Wi-Fi project has its own unique characteristics. According to a press release from Ruckus, the city will finance the initiative from parking revenue and its general fund, so at least there's an acknowledgement by city leaders of the ongoing costs of the project.

And San Jose isn't the only municipality to take on the challenge. Cities such as Staunton, Virginia and Amherst, Massachusetts have recently launched Wi-Fi projects, and New York City announced a pilot program to bring free Wi-Fi hot spots to ten locations in the city. Meanwhile, municipal wireless is being studied in cities as large as Los Angeles.

Google provides free wireless Internet to account holders in Mountain View, Calif., and in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. However, the last two examples are goodwill gestures funded by the search giant's deep pockets rather than a local partnership between government and industry.

It's possible that San Jose becomes an example that other cities might want to follow. The project used respected Atlanta-based integrator SmartWave Technologies to put it all together, so both San Jose and Ruckus benefit from having demonstrable technical skills behind the actual deployment. But history has not been kind to municipal Wi-Fi. We'll have to check back in March 2014 to see how it's working out.

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