California City Gives Muni Wi-Fi Another Shot

Published December 23, 2009

The city of Concord, California is considering bringing municipal wi-fi back, bucking the trend of scores of other cities that scuttled their programs because of high cost and low reliability.

In 2007 the city entered into a deal with Mountain View, California-based MetroFi to set up wi-fi hotspots throughout the city where residents could get free access to the Internet. The city invested employee and public funds to launch the service, which was expected to sustain itself and make profits for MetroFi with banner advertisements. But the company pulled the plug the next year.

MetroFi, which specialized in municipal wi-fi operations, shut down all of its projects in June 2008.

Different, This Time
City leaders stress this wi-fi project will be different from the earlier, failed program because it will be used only for public safety and other municipal purposes—at least at the start.

At press time the city council was expected to vote soon on whether to pay El Granada, California-based Link Path Communications $35,000 to fill out its application for a federal grant. Ironically, Link Path is the company former staffers of MetroFi created when MetroFi went out of business.

Approval Offered
Esme Vos, founder of and a proponent of muni wi-fi projects, says Concord is taking the right approach.

“Cities should set up wi-fi networks for municipal use, especially now because [new and improved] technology has been incorporated into many vendors’ wireless base stations and access points,” Vos said. “The equipment is very affordable and provides significant improvements in latency and bandwidth management, security, interference reduction and data throughput.”

Limitations Recommended
As the discussions have moved forward, members of the city council have suggested the city-only network could eventually be opened up to the public for free service. David Callisch, vice president of marketing at Sunnyvale, California-based Ruckus Wireless, warns Concord against going down that road again.

He asks: If big cities couldn’t make it work, how could mid-sized city of about 125,000 succeed?
“The metro wi-fi market was a resounding failure because cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco and others tried to string up expensive wi-fi nodes on light poles in hopes that they could make money somehow,” Callisch said. “This was the ‘build it and they will come’ model. Two years and $20 million later, those cities figured out that this model didn’t really work.

“Citywide wi-fi systems are legitimate for cities if they are essential to support some public service—like emergency services,” He said. “Otherwise they are merely nice to have.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.