Wi-Fi for the Masses

Municipal wireless networks really heated up in 2005. Will they keep spreading in 2006?

by / December 8, 2005
If nothing else, 2005 was an entertaining year for many a town, city or even county -- though the entertainment sometimes came at the expense of incumbent telecommunications companies.

This was the year of the municipal wireless network, when cities and counties across the country announced deals to blanket their jurisdictions with wireless Internet access. Philadelphia started it off by investigating ways to create a wireless network to provide affordable Internet access to city residents.

San Francisco generated plenty of buzz in August when its request for information and comment for a citywide Wi-Fi network, TechConnect, drew more than a dozen bids. The entrant that generated the most attention was Google, though the company's interest in this market might not be such a good thing for communities already invested in wireless networks.

Google's proposed San Francisco network would be designed to offer more than 1 Mbps of symmetric service throughout the entire city. That sort of speed, however, will cost extra -- the company said residents and visitors could connect free of charge to its network at data rates of up to 300 Kbps.

Google also said it would provide wholesale access at rates vastly discounted from today's retail prices, and other providers could then resell Internet access at substantially higher data rates than the free solution, potentially reaching 2-3 Mbps of throughput. Google itself also may sell ultra high-speed access and other premium services to consumers.

The company's foray into Wi-Fi has far-reaching implications for municipal wireless networks. It's no secret that Google has been busy buying unused fiber capacity in cities across the country, a step some observers see as the foundation for Google becoming an Internet service provider. The San Francisco experiment is a way for Google to refine the best mix of technologies, wired and wireless, to provide Internet access.

The surprise is that Google will likely offer free basic access to its network because the company's revenue comes from advertising contracts. The more people that use the network, the more Google can charge advertisers.

If indeed Google-Fi becomes reality, it would siphon users away from municipally operated wireless networks, which could cause problems for local governments. If those local governments are at all relying on revenues from subscriptions to Internet services, a sudden drop in revenue might turn the municipal network into an albatross instead of a self-supporting offering.

It's difficult to predict what could happen if Philadelphia residents, for example, suddenly had to choose between a low-priced wireless Internet access from the city and free access from Google. Sure, $20 per month isn't much, but free is a lot less.

If a mass migration to Google-Fi took place, Philadelphia -- or any city involved in providing wireless connectivity -- could well find itself in a bind.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor