The city of Philadelphia plans to spend $10 million to blanket the city in Wi-Fi: The network will either be free or available for a cost lower than commercial providers.
It's unclear if such municipal networks will succeed in the future. 3 Rivers Connect built a free, public network in Pittsburgh in 2002 but the network is no longer operating. That network failed for a number of reasons, said George Heinitsh, chief technology officer for 3 Rivers Connect. "The biggest was that we ran into a lot of competition from providers offering service for free," he said.
Doug Luce, founder and president of Telerama, an operator of for-fee hotspots in Pittsburgh, cited some other reasons for 3 Rivers' failure. He said that the mesh technology used by 3 Rivers may not have been very reliable. "Part of it also was they had a great signal in the middle of the street but not so great in storefronts," he said. He said that operators that try to cover whole cities might have such coverage issues.
Luce also wondered about municipal networks that may be built primarily for use by law enforcement agencies. "If the police use it, they're likely to cater to those people and individual users are relegated to second class citizenship," he said.
Still, it's clear that some municipal networks work. The Associated Press story cites Cleveland, which has 4,000 access points in one area of town. The chief information officer of Case Western Reserve University, which is running the project, said that at 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, 1,016 people were logged onto the network. The network is free to use.
But cities that use tax dollars to build networks, ought to have a clear plan for marketing and using the network because even commercial ventures are having trouble figuring out the best business model for operating a Wi-Fi network. Luce says of the Philadelphia network: "This is an expensive experiment."