Santa Clara to Reboot Municipal Wi-Fi Service

Published March 2, 2012

After a futile attempt to implement a citywide free wi-fi system in Santa Clara, California, the city has announced it’s re-launching the plans under its very own network. Silicon Valley Power, the municipal electric utility owned by Santa Clara, is preparing to launch the Internet access later this year, according to The Santa Clara Weekly.

Market advocates, however, note the city’s taxpayer-subsidized program unfairly competes with private-sector Internet providers, and they point out wi-fi performance compares unfavorably with long-term evolution (LTE) technologies offered by ISPs.

“Muni wi-fi is doomed to fail for both technical and economic reasons,” said Richard Bennett, a senior research fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington DC, nonpartisan research and educational institute. “Muni wi-fi advocates hoodwinked elected officials with hollow promises about the utility of these networks, in part because the advocates themselves don’t appreciate the limits of wi-fi.”

Previous City Wi-Fi Bankrupt
Supporters of the network say the new system will be more powerful than its predecessor, MetroFi. The original system never reached the entire city and was limited to outdoor use only. Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi is expected to work citywide, indoors and outdoors. The high-density design will provide 40 access points per square mile versus MetroFi’s 30 access points, and deliver 2 mbps versus MetroFi’s 1 mbps.

Santa Clara took over the MetroFi network for meter reading in 2008, after the company went bankrupt. The company had contracts to deploy wi-fi networks across the United States but failed to make money.

Once Santa Clara bought the MetroFi access points, the city issued a public tender to find a systems integrator to build a wireless automated meter reading (AMR) system. Silicon Valley Power chose Elster Solutions, which is building an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) which has more capabilities and features than AMR, according to Wei-En Tan, Elster Solutions communications spokesperson.

“The difference is that AMI is two-way communications. With automated meter reading, all the meter does is broadcast one way to the utility. Among other things, if there are errors, there’s no way for the utility to broadcast back and run diagnostics. Although AMR is pervasive in many areas, we believe that AMI will replace most AMR systems in upcoming years,” said Tan.

The city’s Web site states it is in the process of acquiring the MetroFi infrastructure to support the implementation of the city’s network.

“The network was acquired to support its electric utility, Silicon Valley Power, an advanced metering initiative currently under development. As part of the meter initiative, the City of Santa Clara will maintain the existing network through next year,” according to the city’s Web site.

‘Inappropriate’ Technology Choice
Bennett says wi-fi is an “inappropriate” technology for outdoor networks that have to cover large areas. He also warns no network is sustainable without continuous management and investment. 

“The United States leads the world in the deployment of LTE, the first technology that can really deliver the pervasive, high-performance networking experience that municipal wi-fi promised. Ultimately, muni wi-fi will be pushed aside by LTE,” he said.

“The city of Santa Clara runs its own electric utility and does so pretty well, so I’m confident they will convert their wireless network to a more reliable technology in the long run,” he added.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.

Internet Info

“Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi: A Work in Progress,” City of Santa Clara, California Web site:

“Free Wireless Broadband Makes Santa Clara Better Place to Live and Do Business,” Carolyn Schuk, Santa Clara Weekly, January 2012, Issue 2: