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April 25, 2006

Muni-Fi, Muni-Stall, Or, Why Does Everyone Keep Talking about Chaska

This week's St. Cloud, Fla., story about some minor glitches received big play: While the Associated Press story was balanced and had a lot of information about the limitations of that free city-wide network, most of the analysis of the AP story relied on the first few grafs which mentioned the experience of one individual who couldn't get a reliable connection. This isn't unusual, although it's a problem with the echo chamber that is second-hand Internet analysis that the gist of the story is lost through focus on one facet of the reporting.

The St. Cloud story isn't important in the grander scheme, however, because St. Cloud managed to build their network and take it operational. While Esme Vos's latest count of metro-scale networks--municipal use only, public only, and mixed--shows 193 cities in the US with operational service or issued RFPs, the scale remains small.

A colleague recently complained via email that everyone keeps talking about Chaska, Minn., the small town that used Tropos equipment nearly two years ago to provide ubiquitous broadband coverage. Chaska is an interesting story, and appears to have been generally successful in its cost and service goals. But it's hardly a microcosm of the larger networks that are being planned and built in urban areas.

The stall has to do with the pace of government, something I've wondered about for more than a year. With the speed that some RFPs were issued, it seemed like the usual pace of deliberative government was being bypassed. This didn't seem like a good thing for two reasons.

First, with public funds (let's eschew taxpayer dollars, a loaded and incomplete phrase) involved, there should be plenty of time for review and for critique of business plans, some of which seemed too enthusiastic to start with--assuming that incumbents wouldn't lower prices or enter the market. Even when public funds aren't used to build the network, almost exclusively the case in the largest markets in the last year, public dollars will be used to pay for telecom services contracted with a winning bidder. And the winning bidder will receive a certain kind of franchise and exclusive right as the first mover and the bid winner. These quasi-franchise contracts have 5, 10, and 15 year terms.

Second, technology is changing so rapidly that building a network in 2006 may not make as much sense as having built it in 2004 or 2005. It's hard to make a case today that a network you start work on this month will have the best speed, performance, cost advantage, and spectrum efficiency as one that breaks ground in a year. With 802.16-2005 (the ratified version of 802.16e) and mobile WiMax entering the picture for niche purposes, including a specific citywide service overlay, and with 802.11n swinging towards ratification, it seems like a hard argument to say that vast speed and coverage improvements won't be available for metro-scale devices in the next 12 months. (The recent public launch of Go Networks, which uses MIMO to reduce metro-scale node count by up to 50 percent, the company states, is one indication of the direction that at least claims in the market will trend towards.)

The latter factor probably won't prevent networks from being built, because companies are bearing the financial risk themselves of having to later swap out equipment, and are meeting specific speed requirements in RFPs often composed to avoid direct competition with wireline DSL and cable providers. Most of the RFPs and the most of the bidders and providers involved in those metro-scale networks already include components in their networks that should allow some futureproofing, such as WiMax-like components for backhaul (which will be used for T-1 replacement for muni and business users).

But the former factor, the deliberative pace of government, has become a major issue. I notice that Philadelphia is often cited by journalists around the US and internationally as a network that's in the process of being built. Or a reporter will write that Philadelphia's network is a model for other cities. This is, of course, a canard.

When we look at large cities and the networks that are being built for them, you can see a pattern.

  • Philadelphia and a local utility have still not signed the host of contracts required for the EarthLink/Wireless Philadelphia network to start being built. The city council reportedly felt dumped upon when presented with hundreds of pages of contracts in March with no time to review them thoroughly. No news from Phila. since then.
  • San Francisco, recently having given EarthLink and Google the nod after 18 months of discussion, an RFI, and an RFP, now faces complaints about the process by a member of the Board of Supervisors, which could veto the plan. (Note the indirect quote from SF telecom/IT director Chris Vein: "Interference won’t be as bad as some critics charge." Vein, no one I spoke to for my lengthy Economist article in March who didn't work for a mesh equipment vendor would agree with that statement. Fundamentally, no one can predict whether interference will be as bad as Tim Pozar expects.)
  • Portland, Ore., decided on MetroFi recently after a year of process. Losing bidders apparently won't fight the award to MetroFi of the city contract. But the contract isn't signed yet. From the Oregonian story: "MetroFi's selection...needs to be ratified by the Portland City Council. City officials said Wednesday they hope to have MetroFi's contract before the council next month, so construction can begin in June."
  • Minneapolis, Minn., has been working on a citywide Wi-Fi and fiber plan for more than a year, with an RFP outstanding for some months. The finalists have been known since last year (US Internet and EarthLink). In February, the City Council authorized pilot network projects, and might sign a contract by fall.
  • Oakland County, Mich., just suffered a delay in a large-scale early mobile WiMax project because of utility pole issues.

As I note above, there's nothing at all wrong with this taking some time. In the case of SF, one person notes that the contract that will be signed lasts 15 years, but doesn't require an increase of bandwidth during that period. “ 'In 2021, 300Mbps [sic: should read Kbps] is going to seem a bit ridiculous … it's a great solution for, like, 1996,' said Ralf Muehlen, director of SFLAN, a free, nonprofit Wi-Fi network in the city."

When I wrote the article for The Economist that was titled Wi-Pie in the Sky, I concluded that no network of the scale, density, and nature of the one proposed for Philadelphia had yet been built. Mesh vendors gave me pushback on this statement while I was writing the article and after it appeared. But none has been able to find an example that has more than one or two of the several properties that all these major city networks will have to demonstrate.

What this means is that most of these networks will be built simultaneously and not be able to learn from mistakes or successes of the others during testing and build-out. I had thought months ago that the 15-square-mile test network that Phila. required the winning bidder to create would have been in operation for some time. Now it seems that the pace of government wins over the pace of technology in the end.

That could be a good thing. Enough delays could give time for plans to be revised to incorporate 21st century technology instead of good old last century's 802.11a, b, and g.