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May 20, 2008

When did MuniWiFi "Jump the Shark"?

With Philly and MetroFi opening and closing the second phase of expanding the edge of the internet beyond the Telco CO and Cable Head End, (the first was the rise of hotspots) there's lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I think the point where it went over the edge was Ocean City's Muni project, where it was posited that the garbage cans would be wi-fi enabled.  When I read that last summer, I knew it was the beginning of the end, because the consultants were grasping at straws to justify the capital investment.  It doesn't make sense to replace a bunch of summer jobs for teenagers with electronic garbage cans.

Karl Edwards has a good guest post up at MuniWireless describing some of the better ways to move forward, and points out that Cablevision's wi-fi is not free.  Cablevision is fighting a holding action against Verizon's quadruple play, and positioning itself as delivering more for the dollar than Verizon's home triple-play offering.  When it is built out, they will be working to deny VZ the extra $60/month/line that VZ currently gets by offering EV-DO.  If wi-fi provides "good enough" coverage and a better broadband experience, then they will have achieved their primary goal.  Of course, you can do much more than that with a big wi-fi asset, but we'll have to wait and see how they execute on it.


As I have always said, wi-fi blankets don't work, and you have to start with an infill strategy and build from there.  I've managed to do reasonably well with that strategy, and have seen Cometa, Earthlink, and now MetroFi, come and go, while we are still standing with Fire Island Wireless, Wi-RAN, and UrbanHotspots.

Esme Vos and Andy Abramson I think were sharing a bit too much of the fruit of the vine when they posited the concept of forcing venue owners to provide wi-fi through legislation.  In most pundits' posts, nobody ever talks to the venue owners themselves, or are dismissive of them as not being customer sensitive.  Creating wifi spots is a real estate game, and the real estate owners need to look on wi-fi as a positive, not a magnet for table moochers, even in the city by the bay.  As long as you have signs like thisSfwifitablecampers one, in San Francisco's Caffe Roma, you will face an uphill battle to get free wi-fi embraced. 

I think we should focus much more as Esme rightly says, on Structural Separation, where the physical plant connecting businesses and residences is viewed as a common carrier itself, and service providers can compete to provide the IP or other protocol transports over it.


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Glenn Fleishman

There are two other things that made muni-Fi fail, I would argue, too.

One is that the hundreds of millions of Wi-Fi devices enabled for easy access onto outdoor Wi-Fi networks really aren't here yet. You've got the iPhone, some BlackBerry models, and a handful of cameras, none of which make it easy to log into a for-fee or access-controlled network. (As opposed to say, using Boingo or Devicescape's software to just get online.)

If manufacturers had sold 10 million Wi-Fi enabled cameras, there would be a reason to have ubiquitous outdoor access and customers for it. But that didn't happen.

The second is that the cost of attachment was dramatically misunderstood. Forget the node density, also a large factor, even; the sheer difficulty of gettings pole rights and getting electricity to those poles turned out to be far more complicated than any other part of the problem.

Cablevision is apparently just screwing their Cisco and BelAir nodes right onto their wires, using plant power. Nice if you can get it.

Esme Vos

I have been here in Berlin for a week and suddenly, while queueing to get into the Reichstag (30+ min) I realized that if a lot of people had an iPhone or iPod Touch and the Bundestag provided free WiFi right outside the building, we all could find out where to eat in Berlin that evening, what else to do the next day, which clubs had great parties, which DJs were DJing in Berlin, etc.

Another modest proposal for outdoor WiFi when a lot of people run around with iPod Touch and iPhones: provide free WiFi in those outdoor areas where people queue, like outside the Reichstag, the Louvre, etc.

Craig Plunkett

Thanks for the comments, Glenn and Esme. Glenn's comments come down to supply and demand. The supply of mounting real estate is tightly controlled, and networks are a low margin, high-volume business, and the client volume is beginning to take off with handheld devices. You can see that in some of our high demographic locations.
Esme comments on a particular venue offering wi-fi. To date, most venues don't get the idea that their airspace can be turned into an interactive digital environment, where the customers themselves carry around the digital signage. Once somebody educates venue owners to the marketing possibilities of this beyond the branded SSID, and the handheld volumes are there to make it an attractive proposition, you'll see venues embrace the layers 4-7 possibilities of wifi rather than just offering a layer 3 IP connection "watering hole".

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