Muni Wi-Fi’s Second Chance

Four years ago, municipal Wi-Fi rode in on a great wave of promise: free Internet for all residents! It offered a utopian vision of whole cities becoming hotspots where people could surf the Web from a park bench, closing the digital divide in the process.

That promise has gone largely unfulfilled. After signing Internet companies to big contracts to blanket their cities with access points to create mesh networks, municipal governments have since experienced a severe case of buyer’s remorse.

The problem was that they set out with the wrong business model, explains Stan Schatt, vice president of ABI Research and lead author of a new report projecting a 60-fold increase in government-funded Wi-Fi coverage over the next four years.

“There’ve been all kinds of approaches that have been tried, mostly unsuccessful,” Schatt said in an interview with Consumer Internet use should be a secondary concern for muni Wi-Fi deployments.

“Most of the business is public safety and secure internal networks for municipal workers,” Schatt said, describing the government services as an “anchor tenant” of the municipal model.

According to Schatt, citywide Wi-Fi networks will work if the government’s emergency services networks are established as the engine of revenue, delivering the provider a “guaranteed flow of funds for a period of time.”

Once the network’s revenue structure is established, the consumer applications can follow. Schatt anticipates a model where cities would offer residents Internet access for a nominal monthly charge, with subscriptions driven by the increasing use of mobile devices to access the Internet.

In addition to powering the secured communication channels for police and fire departments, more cities are deploying Wi-Fi networks to support video applications.

Some of these applications come with compelling cost justifications, Schatt said. Many police cars are now equipped cameras that point forward and backward, documenting an officer’s movements outside of the vehicle, which has proven useful in defending against bogus allegations of police misconduct.

Then there is the very practical matter of reading utility meters outside people’s home. Municipal networks offer the potential for remote “smart monitoring,” saving the cost of the considerable man-hours involved in going door to door each month.

Another promising business value for muni Wi-Fi is powering video surveillance — leaving aside the considerable legislative challenges that inevitably arise from the privacy concerns about that issue. Schatt wrote that wireless surveillance systems “will provide financial returns by helping prevent possible terrorist attacks, decreasing overall crime, improving traffic flow and even boosting tourism by creating stable communities.”

The upshot, according to Schatt, is that muni Wi-Fi can succeed, it just won’t be as glamorous as cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans promising free Internet access for all residents. While the buzz around citywide Wi-Fi has faded, deployments are continuing under the radar, with companies like Strix Systems, Tropos Networks and Firetide quietly signing contracts with mid-size cities around the country to provide the equipment to build mesh networks.

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