During the past few years, numerous cities and counties clamored for Wi-Fi arrangements in which vendors funded a jurisdiction's entire network - in some cases subsidizing a handful of wireless subscriptions for low-income citizens. Vendors hoped the venture would result in a wireless service subscription bonanza. The gamble didn't pay off.
As vendors deployed municipal Wi-Fi networks, they discovered the networks didn't attract enough citizen subscriptions to make them profitable. Furthermore, many local governments refused to be anchor tenants, which would have committed them to purchasing a specified volume of service. In November, EarthLink, one of the best-known providers using the business model, announced it would hold off on new municipal Wi-Fi build-outs until it finds a viable business model.
Other cities, like San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., sought ad-supported models in which private providers own and operate the networks, offering free access to citizens in exchange for them enduring a 1-inch band of advertising across the bottom of their screens. That model failed to gain traction as well.
Some observers blame cities' desire to "bridge the digital divide" for the ultimate downfall of some municipal Wi-Fi networks. Local governments should have focused instead on improving government processes as the rationale for building a network, said Riz Khaliq, IBM Global Business executive for Government.
Much of the recent municipal wireless activity has been about enabling mayors to announce free Wi-Fi connectivity for citizens, Khaliq said. He said those pronouncements didn't have much political value in the end because business plans didn't deliver profit for vendors.
Craig Settles, a municipal broadband analyst, agrees with that assessment.
"You literally had rock star status if you said you were going to do Wi-Fi and you were going to do it for free. You were guaranteed instant fame in the overall scheme of life, in terms of what drove politicians," Settles said. "It was an easy thing to score points on, but it was very bad decision-making from a technology deployment standpoint."
Cities can justify paying for municipal wireless networks if they use them for applications that cut costs, said Khaliq.
"Think of health inspectors, building inspectors, social workers," Khaliq said. "All of those individuals are field-based employees, and yet they don't have any ability to use technology for effectiveness in the field. Their systems are still either paper-based or require them to come into the office and physically pick up a file and update a database. If they can have ubiquitous connectivity in the field, they can improve efficiency."
Due to the free municipal network craze, many cities announced plans before addressing the needs for the governments those networks would satisfy.
"They've got to go back to the need, whether it's going to be public safety, or providing services to facilitate economic development," Settles said. "You have rural areas. You have urban areas. You have suburban areas. All of these areas represent different types of needs in terms of what the application needs to be beyond just the network. Subsequently the network has to facilitate what those applications are going to be."
He said local governments should focus only on citizen broadband access when local industry demands it, or when no other providers will supply it. He offered Greene County, N.C., as a good public-access model.
"In Greene County, the local economy was devastated because the tobacco industry pulled out," Settles said. "They have needs to retrain adult workers who only knew tobacco. The access and the programs have to facilitate that. When you start looking at each city's issues and needs, then you start looking around and asking, 'What technology is going to make sense?'"
Greene County obtained a federal grant to fund a municipal Wi-Fi network
to promote technology literacy and education for jobs other than tobacco production.
The Corpus Christi Model
Corpus Christi had government functionality in mind before pursuing its municipal Wi-Fi network; the city made its network pay for itself.
Before deciding to build the network, a city meter reader was attacked on the job by two pit bulls. Corpus Christi officials decided automated meter reading using municipal wireless would improve efficiency and employee safety. The city attained a $7 million grant to deploy the network, and then local planners discovered the network could also satisfy several other government needs.
"We started bringing public safety in, and building inspection, and neighborhood services for code enforcement purposes. We saw different ways we could deliver our services with wireless technology," said JoAnn Hooks, digital community developer for Corpus Christi.
After building the network, Corpus Christi implemented several applications for mobilizing government workers who work outside the office. The change aimed to boost efficiency and slash costs, helping the network to pay for itself.
After the project began, EarthLink offered to buy the network from the city in order to sell wireless service subscriptions to citizens. Corpus Christi agreed to be an anchor tenant, committing the city to a specified volume of services each year. EarthLink will pay Corpus Christi $200,000 per year for the next 10 years. The city expects its first payment in December 2007. At that point, city project leaders will determine how much money the network is saving taxpayers, said Hooks.
Hooks cautioned that moving employees to mobile applications isn't a smooth process.
"This has been a painful process in a lot of ways because when you're looking at the internal culture, for them to actually go into a wireless environment, a lot of education has to take place," she said. "Sometimes folks are just not receptive to changing to that type of environment when the change is so drastic."
At a time when several high-profile local governments are walking away from municipal wireless, Corpus Christi marches forward.
"It's something our city planner believes in, that we believe in," Hooks said. "Many of the departments using this technology see that it has improved their efficiency. They're able to do more. It impacts customer service. That's part of the education process. We're not looking back."
Brownsville will implement a municipal WiMAX network in January 2008. Like Corpus Christi, Brownsville paid for its own network and plans to earn back its money by implementing mobile applications. Time will show whether Brownsville can match Corpus Christi's success.
The aphorism that "there is no such thing as a free lunch" seems to hold true about wireless municipal networks. Cities that want them must make them economically viable.
Andy Opsahl is features editor for Government Technology. He has written extensively on government IT outsourcing and private-sector solutions in government. Opsahl also writes for Government Technology's Public CIO and Emergency Management.
NEW ON THE PODCAST