Atlanta-based EarthLink's February confirmation that it was selling off its municipal Wi-Fi business sounded the final death knell for some cities' ambitious goals to offer ubiquitous wireless broadband. With such a large player abandoning plans to build wireless networks, many lost hope that wide-area Wi-Fi could succeed. However, already having dismissed those visions as impractical, some city and county officials have been re-evaluating their blueprints, intentions and assumptions about wireless networks.

While some cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago and Birmingham, Ala., saw their Wi-Fi projects fold, and Philadelphia experienced delays and cost spikes, Minneapolis, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Riverside, Calif., have succeeded in creating a progressive broadband access option for residents and a productivity-enhancing, money-saving option for governments. The business model that is prevailing: governments as anchor tenants on a network with limited public access. “Before, you had cities getting up on this soapbox and saying, ‘We will use this network to raise up the under-privileged,’ and they all sang ‘Kumbaya’ and went home,” says Craig Settles, author of several books on the municipal Wi-Fi trend and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based consulting firm “We're now in the sober reality the night after that party. It's now clear that if you do this, there's a lot to do — you need to find funds, build infrastructure, train a lot of people. The whole support structure costs a lot of money to put in place.”

The anchor-tenant model

Part of the early promise of municipal Wi-Fi networks was that business travelers could be a source of revenue. Another notion was that municipal Wi-Fi would foster new economic development. For the most part, neither has happened, though municipal networks still can be a factor in a positive relationship between cities and economic development forces.

Riverside, Calif., pursued municipal Wi-Fi largely because several business leaders in the university community urged the city to build a network to strengthen its high-tech reputation and provide easy Internet access for business people, says Steve Reneker, the city's chief information officer. That community support, in turn, helped attract Riverside's network partner, New York-based AT&T, to the table. “I think AT&T looked at that and the fact that we have 50,000 higher-education students here, and saw the potential for a lot of usage,” Reneker says.

Riverside initially planned for the city government to be the anchor tenant on the network. Ultimately, the guarantee of a large government client is what drew AT&T into the project, the first of its type for the giant telephone company. “We always planned to be an anchor tenant on the network because that was the only way to get a carrier to install it for free,” Reneker says. “We went to all of our city departments to see what applications they might have to get Wi-Fi-enabled. Now, we think the anchor tenant model will be used across the U.S.”

Riverside has found that a wide range of local government tasks — such as those performed by public safety agencies — can be made easier or less expensive by using wireless. With public safety vehicles equipped with Wi-Fi gear and 4.9 gigahertz links, officers can watch in-vehicle video and transmit forms and paperwork that they would otherwise need to return to an office to file. Public safety applications, including surveillance, were primary components of a Wi-Fi pilot project Riverside ran in late 2006 and early 2007.

However, Riverside also explored a number of possible network uses, such as parking meter monitoring, remotely controlled lighting for ball fields and networked traffic signals. “We're looking at uses by our sanitation department and at remote meter reading,” Reneker says, admitting that an initial proposal for Wi-Fi-enabled meter reading was not cost-efficient enough and is still being negotiated.

Still, while government use plays a prominent role in making Riverside's network a reality, the city has a tiered plan for public access to the network that reflects creative thinking some earlier muni-Wi-Fi business models missed: MetroFi-Free, a service with bandwidth limits of 512 kilobits-per-second downstream and 256 kilobits-per-second upstream. As the name implies, this service is free to users, with browser advertising picking up the tab (MetroFi is a service provider subcontracted by AT&T). Another package, AT&T Metro Wi-Fi, is a paid service that comes with a bandwidth upgrade to 1 megabit-per-second and less advertising. That plan is priced at $6.99 for daily access and $15.99 for a weekly pass.

Less is more

Making wireless networks cost-efficient above all else is a concept that many early municipal Wi-Fi advocates failed to grasp. “Developing a municipal wireless network as a public offering intended to make some money is where there have been failures,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Washington-based Public Technology Institute (PTI). “Look at what people are spending on technology. At home, they have cable TV — that's a median of $80 a month. If you have HD, that bumps you up. Internet access is maybe $35 to $40, cell phone, $30 to $50. If you add that all up, why would people be willing to spend another $20 per month for public Wi-Fi access?”

So, cities and counties may need to settle for islands of publicly available coverage in which network operators can sell access for a modest fee or offer it free with advertising support. “Cities will still have hot zones,” Settles says. “But isolated hot zones won't have the hoopla that the idea of cities blanketed with Wi-Fi had.”

While public fee-based Wi-Fi blankets are giving way to new models based on hot zones and governments as anchor network tenants, the notion that municipal networks can help erase the digital divide remains alive and well, if somewhat battered. Settles says that while government use is now the strongest driving force in the construction of municipal networks, broadband inclusion remains the next most significant driver. “The only place they are talking about public access is in rural areas where a public wireless network is the only way to get broadband,” he says. “They represent the other side of the digital inclusion question, the side challenged by geography instead of low income.”

Broadband inclusion for urban low-income areas might be a more difficult challenge because it would require the more risky and expensive wireless blanket approach from which municipalities have started to move away. However, Settles says some larger cities like Minneapolis and, most notably, Philadelphia, are still trying to build networks that include both the municipal government as an anchor tenant and a digital inclusion fund to bring access to the under-privileged. Minneapolis' network, which received positive reviews for its role in keeping emergency responders connected during last year's I-35 bridge collapse, is now about 80 percent finished, and Philadelphia's is about 70 percent completed, Settles says.

Shark, however, is not certain urban networks with broadband inclusion as their primary mission can work. “Giving some people on the other side of the digital divide a computer is like giving them a car without the license to drive it,” Shark says. “Rural cities and counties are different. There, the city might be the provider of last resort.”

That's exactly the case in Washtenaw County, Mich., home to about 340,000 people. It sits in a six-county area of Michigan where a 2004 survey found that nearly 25 percent of residents did not own a computer. The county began building a network in 2006 and currently has about 30 square miles out of a total county coverage area of 720 square miles, says David Behen, Washtenaw County administrator. “The main goal was to provide a broadband option to the folks in the western half of Washtenaw County. They currently have no options. A secondary goal was for [the] government to use the network for the continually growing mobile workforce,” Behen says.

However, like others, Washtenaw County has seen public support weaken and potential funding and partners wobble since the broader muni-Wi-Fi bubble popped. The project was due to be completed last year, but some funding and interest evaporated. “Funders seemed to have dried up after Philly, Chicago, San Francisco, San Antonio, [and] others pulled out of the industry,” Behen says. “Although the funding dried up nationally, we are hopeful that local funders will step up to the plate and fund our private sector partner, who is also local. Some have questioned the project and whether or not we can be successful. We still are absolutely committed to this [but] need to complete this project in the next 12 to 18 months to consider this a success.”

Municipal Wi-Fi networks have indeed taken a hit from the deflation of the hype that started the trend earlier in the decade. Corpus Christi, which had built its own network and then sold it to EarthLink, will have to find a new provider, as will Philadelphia, which also worked with EarthLink. But, cities that took their lumps now can rebound with better plans. “Philadelphia will have a decision to make about what it is going to do,” Settles says. “But, if they continue, they will be the largest city doing this kind of network for public and government use. They have a chance to be an inspiration and to be the city that other cities look at for guidance.”

EarthLink's exit created a void because it has been the lead contractor on several projects. Now, it may appear that there are a lack of potential partners that have the wherewithal and experience to build the networks. Shark does not believe that to be the case. “EarthLink poisoned the whole market,” he says. “The real issue for cities looking for partners is that if you have a business model, you will attract companies. There's not a lack of companies ready to build these networks. There is just a lack of economic sense making it possible.”

Dan O'Shea is a Chicago-based freelance writer.