No strings attached, the headline says: Milwaukee's local startup Midwest Fiber Networks wants to unwire the whole town in exchange for selling service. This has been written about in recent weeks, but this article is the first I've seen--although I've heard it elsewhere--that EarthLink would be involved in the project. This is also the first I'm aware of in which a company initiated the project, pitching it to a city. How does that fit into the competition vs. municipal debate? As a fiber operator, they already have backhaul, which makes a cost-effective rollout of high-speed services much simpler.
An analyst is quoted noting: "The basic idea remains unproven, she said, adding that there isn't yet a single big city 'where citywide Wi-Fi has been deployed for public use.' " I agree with that, but I've been finding out in recent weeks that "citywide Wi-Fi" often means to the analysts and critics "citywide mesh Wi-Fi," while the companies bidding on plans will use 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi sparingly, just for end user access, and mesh also sparingly. Backhaul won't contend.
There's a history of the company making the bid later in the article, and a bank has already said they would "strongly consider" a loan to the company to fund the network. The company would install more fiber as part of the project, making it more likely to help them in the long run. In fact, even if the Wi-Fi flops, they may be the best firm from which cell operators and WiMax operators (incumbent, independent, or otherwise) lease their fiber backhaul from.
Dewayne Hendricks of Dandin Group has an excellent zinger at the end of this article: "Even two years ago, if you broached the subject of wireless clouds over the major cities of the U.S., you would have been institutionalized." I recall people talking about hotzones in 2003, before faster and better algorithms were widely used in wireless and before real 3G networks were deployed in the U.S. Even downtown hotzones were seen as slightly ridiculous.
A longer analysis of the idea of municipal Wi-Fi appears in the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.): The article takes off from Minneapolis narrowing its candidates to build a citywide fiber/Wi-Fi network to EarthLink and US Internet. The city of Chaska has had a Wi-Fi network since June 2004, and the writer looks to that town for Wi-Fi writ small. The city has signed up more than 25 percent of residents (2,300 out of 8,000 households). The city had to spend more than expected, but the additional customers have apparently made up the revenue. Even customers getting slower speeds than they thought are paying bills that are small enough they're tolerating the difference assuming it will get better.
I don't quite understand a Qwest spokesperson's characterization of what makes a public subsidy: "Minneapolis says it will let an outside company own and operate the Wi-Fi network, so the city will not be in competition with private enterprise. 'That is a disingenuous argument because the city will serve as the anchor tenant,' Stanoch said. 'That is, under anyone's definition, a public subsidy.' "
A private company being paid fees by a government entity under contract seems like a typical arrangement. I know that Qwest would rather these networks not be built, but subsidy implies unequal compensation--typically higher than market--for work that would otherwise be unfunded. In this case, I would think Qwest would point out that this is a franchise award without the public hearings, protections, and taxes typically associated with franchise agreements.
The article quotes the Institute for Self Reliance, a local group, that thinks Minneapolis isn't owning enough of the network. This group might be my new favorite nonprofit: I don't agree with every position, but their general philosophy of local policy, local action, local results matches my attitude for much of what's being discussed in the municipal wireless realm. (They don't list their donors.)