Municipal Wi-Fi Delayed in St. Charles, Illinois

Published June 1, 2008

A municipal wi-fi project in St. Charles, Illinois is approximately one month behind schedule but continuing to move forward. MeshLinx of Richardson, Texas is adding needed equipment to the electricity nodes, with completion expected in another 30 days.

Glynn Amburgey, the city’s superintendent of electric and communications utilities, characterizes the delay as normal for a construction project.

The agreement with MeshLinx is separate from the wireless Internet access St. Charles offers along its riverwalk near City Hall, Amburgey said. The city’s wireless service was launched in June 2006 and provides advertiser-supported wireless Internet access. Amburgey said MeshLinx is an independent vendor and is not endorsed by the city.

Nearby Wi-Fi Failure

Though there are many similarities to the stalled municipal wi-fi project in Aurora, Illinois, there are some important differences that may explain why the St. Charles project continues to move forward.

MetroFi of Mountain View, California suspended the Aurora project when the city refused to be an anchor tenant and pay ongoing fees for the right to use the service. In order to establish the service, MetroFi would have had to pay a monthly fee to install its equipment on utility poles.

The same is true for MeshLinx in St. Charles, but Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison, the local power company, would be collecting the fee. Instead of seeking funding from the municipality, it would pay rent to the city without a demand for the city as an anchor tenant.

St. Charles operates its own power distribution and would therefore earn about $30 per node per year from MeshLinx, according to Amburgey.

“MetroFi came to us, too, but when we declined to be an anchor tenant, they pulled out,” Amburgey said. “We will get revenue [from the arrangement].”

Second Try

St. Charles had tried municipal wi-fi once before, but the effort failed when the provider, Metrocom, went out of business.

Though the MeshLinx proposal doesn’t have some of the problems of the failed MetroFi proposal, there are still issues to be resolved, said Daniel Ballon, a technology policy fellow at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

“If one of the MeshLinx units drops from a utility pole and causes damage or injury, there will be a question of who is liable,” Ballon said.

Moreover, Ballon said, “By selling the right to place the nodes on the poles to MeshLinx, the city could be effectively blocking future competitors, meaning higher costs for those using the service.”

Pay Tiers Available

MeshLinx has a similar agreement with Geneva, Illinois, which sits along the south border of St. Charles. Both MeshLinx efforts are geared to homeowners, who can get basic service for free and pay for additional services.

The fee-based, higher-speed offerings include 1.5-megabyte, 3-megabyte, and 5-megabyte packages for $20, $30, and $35 a month, respectively. A much slower 512 KB connection would be available free of charge.

MeshLinx uses a mesh communications technology that enables customers to have voice, video, and data capabilities.

Among the benefits municipal wi-fi offers a municipality, according to MeshLinx, are connectivity to the public safety network, enabling police and fire personnel with wi-fi devices real-time connectivity for field reporting, surveillance, records management, and other purposes.

However, municipal wi-fi faces serious challenges. “Wi-fi doesn’t work well on a city-wide basis. When you have walls–as in homes and businesses–there is interference with the signal,” Ballon said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.