MetroFi's largest network buildout may or may not go forward: Mike Rogoway of The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper reports on his blog this morning that the mayor's office told him that MetroFi will stop building out the Portland network. Later in the day, after contacting MetroFi, I heard from a company spokesperson that the firm has not made any plans to halt the build out. The spokesperson said the company hasn't said in writing or otherwise that plans have changed; they're working with the mayor's office to resolve this confusion. Rogoway's report was updated, too.
This led me to Logan Kleier, the project manager for the city's Wi-Fi project. In an interview, Kleier explained that MetroFi has been seeking to get an anchor commitment from Portland in which the city would commit to spending dollars on a routine basis. However, "Their plan to complete the network is dependent on either the city's ability to become an anchor tenant or the completion of new venture capital rounds." This doesn't conflict with MetroFi's statement to me or a later statement to Rogoway at the Oregonian. MetroFi intends to keep building the network; Portland intends to not become an anchor tenant.
Kleier said, "We've been fairly clear from the RFP construction and the contract signature and all the way through today is that our relationship is a no-risk relationship, and does not involve anchor tenancy, and we continue to be clear about that." He said the city doesn't have a commitment to spend "even $5" under the terms of the deal. Kleier did note that the city continues to consider the usage numbers on the network as a positive development. "There is pent-up demand out there for it. You're just faced with a changing climate in how to pay for it," he said. The high use of the network "sometimes gets lost in the pessimism."
Portland, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia are the only municipal networks in major metropolitan areas still under construction. No other truly large and dense city has a network built or underway. The existing network will apparently keep operating; it covers about one-fifth of the city. (You can quibble about smaller towns over greater areas, and even suburbs like Tempe/Chandler. But those aren't the same thing.)
Portland's network has received an ongoing stream of criticism from local community wireless activists, reporters, and others, while receiving praise when and where it works. MetroFi has released ongoing statistics from the use of their ad-supported network which indicate it likely has more sessions and usage than any other Wi-Fi network in the world. Among other concerns was the lack of early discussion about the necessity for an indoor bridge. Portland's RFP and contract said it would be nice to have a network in which that kind of hardware wasn't generally needed, but didn't absolutely require access with normal Wi-Fi adapters in homes and businesses.
MetroFi has continued to state their commitment to building out Portland even as they shifted their business model for new deployments to require upfront contractual commitments to purchase services on the network they build. In my Economist piece of last month, I noted that Portland and Minneapolis were the only two big cities to have agreed to pay money upfront. Portland's agreement was pretty vague, though: they set a schedule of charges and likely services they might buy, and that, so far, hasn't translated into more than a few hundred dollars a year of commitments. Minneapolis, by contrast, has committed millions in service fees.
Some criticized my inclusion of Portland in that duo because of the lack of strict commitment. However, I'd argue that in contrast to the vast majority of big-city RFPs and contracts, Portland's specifically was inclusive of buying service; others specifically exclude that. San Francisco's contract with EarthLink, never signed, said in great detail that by building this network, EarthLink would have no privileged position in bidding for city contracts for telecom. Which seemed misguided at the time, and still does. Portland was clearly not an anchor tenant deal, however, and that's become the sticking point here.
Kleier said that he fields calls from other cities about the Portland project all the time, and talks to colleagues at conferences on the subject. When he brings up challenges, they're not always receptive. "If they're not in this place of deployment, they're not ready to hear it," he said.