SF Metro Connect’s Non-Profit Approach

What’s the point of metro Wi-Fi deployments? To bring wireless to everyone, says Anne-Marie Fowler, Principal at SF Metro Connect.

And she means everyone.

In its search for a citywide Wi-Fi provider, the City of San Francisco has narrowed to three potential candidates, including SF Metro Connect. Fowler’s group plays most heavily on the community angle: SF Metro Connect wants to deliver service for free in a non-profit model that would place heavy emphasis on supporting local neighborhoods and communities.

“‘Reaching out to everybody’ is not just sticking an access point on somebody’s house,” Fowler says.

A consortium of Cisco Systems, IBM and community-centric wireless provider SeaKay, SF Metro Connect brings some muscle to the table. But the competition is significant too. Google and EarthLink have teamed to make a bid, while the third finalist, MetroFi, already operates a wireless data network in nearby Silicon Valley.

The SF Metro Connect financial model grows out of SeaKay’s experience in the non-profit world.

A network with 25 nodes per square mile would cost about $7.5 million amortized over 10 years, Fowler says; the number would obviously rise if planners opt for 50 or 75 nodes per square mile. On top of this, the effort would require $1.2 million in the first year for “digital inclusion,” meaning an outreach effort to ensure that all sectors of the city’s social strata are able to make best use of the new wireless connectivity. “That means going into schools, going into senior homes, going wherever people gather,” she says.

The resulting network would include local community portals, services for local businesses, portals for city agencies and services for first responders.

The funding would come from grants and from corporate sponsorship, Fowler says.

On the issue of funding, opinions divide. “This stuff always sounds really good. We’re going to giving it away for free, we’re going to survive on advertising, except advertising is a dirty word so now we call it corporate sponsorship,” says Eddie Hold, Vice President and Research Director of Wireless Service at research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, Va.

The up-front promise is great, Hold says, but there is danger in the follow-up. “Two years down the line, people are grumbling about the bandwidth, no one is upgrading it because the revenue model isn’t there. Who wants to have their corporate name on that?” he says. “It has to have a sustainable form of revenue, and that typically means that people have to pay for it.”

Others say the non-profit model can in fact sustain itself, especially when the wireless network is aligned with a real effort to serve the community. First, such a network would be a natural draw for corporate philanthropy, according to Craig Settles, President of Successful.com and author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.

Beyond the do-good potential, Settles says corporations could reap material benefit from sponsoring such a network. “You will have the ability not only to have your name on a splash page when people log in,” he says. “You can do any number of marketing things, you can do a year-long branding campaign, because you are a sponsor of this network.”

Among the competition, Google and EarthLink have described a free service that would be supported by targeted and location-specific advertising. MetroFi customers could get free service by opting to receive ads, or could choose to pay $20 for ad-free, faster access.

Fowler says the whole focus of these offerings is wrong. If the point is to create access, then give away access for free, she suggests. From there, all else follows. “Providing free wireless, free access, is implicitly a community benefit project, and should be built as such,” she says. “That means non-profit models with opportunity for sponsorship … should be looked at as the first option.”

The city of San Francisco is expected to make a decision about who will provide service any day now.

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