Municipal Wi-Fi Services Proving Increasingly Unaffordable, Outdated

Published May 31, 2016

Several U.S. cities facing budget concerns have abandoned municipal wi-fi plans in recent months. Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia are three major cities that have announced they’re putting the brakes on plans to provide free broadband to residents.   

Municipal wi-fi was proposed as one of several national strategies for bridging the so-called digital divide, the gap between Americans with access to broadband services and those without. The divide is not as pronounced as often reported, with seven out of 10 U.S. households reporting access to the Internet in 2009, according to Census Bureau data released last November by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration.

That report also concludes 64 percent of U.S. households have a broadband connection, a sharp rise from only 9 percent in 2001.

“The major metros are so far in debt, they need to focus on paying the bills and paying them back whole,” said John Head, director of enterprise collaboration for PSC Group, a business consulting firm based in Schaumburg, Illinois.

As a result, he said, “Free wi-fi is going to come more from folks like Google versus the government at any level. Frankly, I think more companies like Google will offer wi-fi for free, with limits on access and speed. Heck, with all this 4G and LTE stuff being announced at the CES [the Consumer Electronics Show held in January 2011], a phone corporation might give some of the low-bandwidth, low-speed stuff away to draw folks in.”

Antiquated and Obsolete
Among the limitations of municipal wi-fi is the requirement of 50 or more towers per square mile to provide adequate coverage. As late as 2006, the Federal Communications Commission had projected only 20 towers would suffice.

The recent transition from analog to digital television mandated by the FCC opened up the “white spaces” between television channels, which the commission planned to adapt to broadband purposes. However, cellular 3G and 4G network buildout by private companies is rendering government-funded wi-fi obsolete.

“Free is good, but sometimes when technology moves forward too quickly, it is not always the right thing to do,” said Bill Wardell, host of the Web program CyberHood Watch Radio. “Vendors, suppliers, and providers of these types of services always look for more cost-effective, cheaper ways to build things, and [they usually] end up sacrificing quality and, most importantly, security.”

Any free wi-fi will have doubtful usability, connectivity, and reliability, says Web programmer and developer Manfred Wenas.

“Why would I want a public wi-fi network when I can get on the Internet wherever I am? I wouldn’t have to go out and find a public wi-fi spot just to check e-mails. And I don’t mind having a cable laid in my house, either. It actually ensures that I have a stable connection. Wi-fi isn’t always very stable, neither is 3G or 4G, but at least I get to choose where I want to access the Internet from,” he said.

Krystle Russin
([email protected]) writes from Texas.