Florida City Taking a Risk with ‘Free’ Wi-Fi Plan

Published May 1, 2009

Residents of Hollywood, Florida now have access to a wireless broadband network provided by the city free of charge.

The city has entered into a contract with Sling Broadband LLC, a local wireless firm, to build and run the service, which also will be used by city employees such as police officers in their squad cars and utility meter-readers.

Depending on Price, Speed

Sascha Meinrath, research director of the wireless future program at the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation, said Hollywood city leaders may soon run into difficulty attracting and keeping users of the network.

“A lot will depend on the pricing structure utilized on the network,” Meinrath said. “If it’s free, a lot of people will use it, but if [the city] charges even a nominal fee, people will be less likely to use the service—particularly if other service providers are available.”

Meinrath notes the speed of Hollywood’s free wi-fi network—comparable to mid-level household DSL connections—may not be enough to retain users down the road.

Light Use Predicted

George Ou, a wi-fi policy expert at the Washington, DC-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, thinks Hollywood is making an expensive mistake.

“I think the public generally won’t use this system, since most people don’t own laptops, mobile Internet devices, or iPhones,” Ou said. “Indeed, those who own iPhones won’t absolutely need it since they already pay for 2G or 3G ubiquitous access.

“Those who do have laptops or netbooks will use [this service] in the few places they can find a sufficient signal and where there isn’t interference,” Ou said. “The big problem with this is that everyone is using these [wi-fi frequencies] for all sorts of devices, and it’s very easy for there to be interference.”

Cities on the Hook

Similar municipal wi-fi programs have failed in scores of cities of all sizes across the country—including Philadelphia, New Orleans, Chicago, Anaheim, and Springfield, Illinois. Taxpayers are often left responsible for maintaining the networks or dismantling them when they wither from lack of use.

“It simply costs too much to operate the service, and cities aren’t willing, ultimately, to pay what they need to pay to keep the service viable,” Ou said, noting users abandon “free” wi-fi because it doesn’t match private-sector quality.

“Many people confuse wi-fi for a wide-area technology capable of supporting free mobile VoIP phone calling when it was never designed to scale past a few users for data applications,” Ou said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.