Those closely following the “muni-wireless movement” reached a near state of hysteria in September when Atlanta-based Earthlink announced a strategic pull-back from about a dozen cities where it had committed to build citywide wireless networks. It was a shock to many to lose such a high-profile wireless broadband investor and service provider, which, for awhile, appeared to have deep and sustainable pockets of cash. Now, left without such a large player, many local officials are asking, “If Earthlink can't do it, who can?”

Despite an atmosphere of gloom, the news may be viewed as a positive development. Certainly many cities and counties must go back to the drawing board with their plans for muni-wireless, but because they can no longer count on having someone else build a system for free, hundreds of communities that thought they could wait until they found a “perfect” partner now are free to investigate other options. Wi-Fi partners look very different today, and more realistic models for success are available. For example, many cities and counties now plan to offer Wi-Fi only in select areas.

While there is not one ideal outcome for every city or county, those that have established wireless broadband networks, such as Corpus Christi, Texas, share four keys to success. First, they engage in careful strategic planning among all stakeholders. Before deciding on any one technology or approach, local leaders must clarify their answers to the questions, “Why are we doing this, and for whom?” Many large cities have an abundance of broadband choices, so local leaders must determine what the city can or should provide that is not yet available. Leaders in rural areas must decide whether a wireless network can serve a dispersed population and if the anticipated demand will support the cost.

Second, local officials must be willing to invest cash and staff resources into the system. Wireless networks are not inexpensive, so cities that serve as “anchor tenants” on the networks help with a vendor's income stream and immediately benefit from the many wireless applications available.

Third, cities and counties should not expect to make a profit — though recouping costs certainly is a desired goal when possible. Wireless networks, when properly engineered, are the most cost-effective means of connecting with residents, but the economic payback for municipalities is quite different from corporate earnings targets. When it comes to resident connectivity and empowerment, cities and counties must look at broadband as vital infrastructure and invest in it as they do other essential services such as buildings, bridges, water, electricity and public health.

Fourth, local governments should plan to turn over the marketing and maintenance of wireless systems to a private vendor at an appropriate time. There is no practical way for a city or county, which often lacks staff, time and training, to better manage a wireless network than a private provider.

Local officials should remember that Wi-Fi is only one of the many broadband technologies that exist. In the end, a plethora of broadband platforms and providers will emerge, each with their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Local leaders must focus on how broadband can best be used and by whom before settling on any one technological solution.

The author is executive director for the Washington-based Public Technology Institute.