Today's NY Times has a front page article on the looming failure of metropolitan WiFi networks in cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco – "Hope for Wireless Cities are Fading". Faced with deployment challenges to get adequate coverage and competition from other broadband offerings, the service providers that "won" the contracts are withdrawing.
" But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill, tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities."
The challenges of building these metro-area WiFi networks are not new – almost 2 years ago I wrote about the issues that cities like Taipei were having in getting an adequate number of users to pay for the network – in "Saturation Point?" I speculated that the challenges of getting enough users would cause projects to be postponed or cancelled. Sadly, it looks like those fears are being realized.
Hopefully these setbacks are temporary and don't foretell the end of metro-WiFi – these networks would be a great asset.
As I said in my original post, "the imperative is on the user hook" – what does it take to get enough paying user up and running on the network to help subsidize those who can't afford to pay? Perhaps the answer lies in getting the cities to sign up as anchor customers as this quote from the NYT suggests…
"In Minneapolis, the Internet service provider agreed to build the network as long as the city committed to becoming an "anchor tenant" by subscribing for a minimum number of city workers, like building inspectors, meter readers, police officers and firefighters."
In the meantime, I place my bets on the community efforts sponsored by companies like Meraki where the goal is to get the network deployed, not run it as a "for-profit" business. If it had been a requirement for the original "Internet" to be run "for-profit", I doubt we would be using it today – the plug would have been pulled a long time before critical mass was achieved to make it a profitable endeavor!