Florida City Shuts Down Free Muni Wi-Fi

Published November 20, 2009

St. Cloud’s city-owned and -operated free wireless broadband service was once touted as a feature that made the central Florida city unique. Now, faced with budget woes and spotty service, the city is shutting it down, joining a growing list of municipal wi-fi failures.

St. Cloud invested $2.6 million in taxpayer money to build the network, known as CyberSpot, in 2006. With the city facing a $1.3 million budget shortfall as 2010 approaches, the city council voted to pull the plug on free public access.

The city will continue to use the wi-fi system for government business–such as meter reading and employee connectivity–but closing off public access will save about $30,000 in monthly maintenance and operating costs.

Never Recouped Investment

Mayor Donna Hart, who voted to continue the free service, admitted to The Orlando Sentinel the city had failed to find a way to make it financially viable. She defended the investment even though the project was still in the red nearly three years after its launch.

“No matter what people thought of it, it did make our community somewhat unique,” Hart told The Sentinel. “We’ve only had it running for three years, so we really haven’t recouped all of our investment.”

St. Cloud joins a list of cities, as big as Philadelphia and Chicago and smaller towns such as San Marcos, Texas and Boynton Beach, Florida, with failed experiments in taxpayer-funded “free” wi-fi service.

Bound to Fail

While St. Cloud’s service was free, thousands of city residents who attempted to log on often complained about unreliable service.

Carl Gipson, director for small business, technology, and telecommunications at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle, said St. Cloud’s expensive experiment was bound to fail.

“There are numerous stories of municipal governments trying to set up wi-fi networks for their constituents and failing,” Gipson said. “In fact, any municipality that is still providing the service for free or at low cost and has satisfied customers is an exception.”

‘Alarming’ Costs

Hance Haney, director and senior fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute in Washington, DC, said many city governments seem to believe that because wi-fi technology is relatively inexpensive on a personal level, it can be cost-effective on a citywide scale. Experience proves that theory wrong, he says.

“There’s huge difference between how much the underlying wi-fi technology costs to deploy in theory versus how much it can actually cost in reality,” Haney said, noting St. Cloud’s “alarming” but typical $30,000 monthly bill. “Municipal wi-fi schemes fail because the economics fail.”

James G. Lakely ([email protected]) is managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News and co-director of The Heartland Institute’s Center on the Digital Economy.