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January 17, 2007

The Meme of Publicly Owned Muni-Fi Resurges

The concept of municipally owned Wi-Fi makes a comeback: I've been blunt in noting for a couple of years that I don't generally support the idea of cities entering the telecommunications business except in cases in which alternatives are few. But municipally owned wireless really doesn't mean that towns and metropolises are encouraged to develop, say, a utility-based in-house expertise. Rather, it's the other side of the line from public-private partnerships. And it requires acceptance of the notion that substantially more "free" Wi-Fi access is a public good that's more valuable than outsourcing the network and allowing profits to accrue to private enterprise.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance issued a report that argues for a particular form of publicly owned network in which the entity builds infrastructure which it resells on non-discriminatory, broad, wholesale terms. This is distinct from many city-proposed and city-built networks that are either entirely free to use or which put the city in the role of the main or sole retail purveyor of service. Tacoma Power's broadband network has been on this basis since at least 2000, with multiple residential and business providers selling access and the Washington utility not involved in that at all. (Tacoma Power sells cable television service directly, however.)

San Francisco, meanwhile, saw a report issued by the San Francisco budget analyst's office for the Board of Supervisors, a group that has been generally critical of the Wi-Fi plan championed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, and that will shortly reach the supervisors for a vote. The analyst found that a city-owned network could produce a deficit or profit, depending on a variety of assumptions, all of which had the city using such a network to upgrade or replace existing telecom and data contracts--which is not assured in San Francisco's contract with EarthLink. San Francisco has 642 T-1 lines, for instance, and replacing those with in-house wireless links (where fiber wouldn't be available) would save $5,346 per year beyond the setup cost. However, the analyst's report is highly critical of the process by which EarthLink was selected and, by extension, Google incorporated as the free, lower-speed provider. One specific complaint is that no feasibility study was conducted before issuing the RFI and then RFP and then awarding the contract. (Report in PDF form)


Here is a very simple/basic suggestion:
We need to separate out the Access (Network) from the Services (Internet and other apps.)piece.
By doing that and addressing them separately we can get a better idea of where things should fit.

The Access piece of these Wireless Mesh Networks is the Wireless Infrastructure itself providing both a proprietary Backhaul between Nodes/AP and the an open standards based local Access or connection a subscriber gets from the Node.

Access is made up of 2 Parts:
The Network Access piece is where all the investment is made by the provider. This piece and its on going maintenance and support needs to be paid for somehow.
The Customer Access piece is provided by and the responsibility of the subscribers using open standards based systems (Laptops/PDA/Smartphone and NultiMedia handhelds). No cost to the Network provider.

The Service Piece is any one of many existing and or new applications that can operate over the Wireless Access network. These will be packaged and priced separately.
However, the main one is the Internet that can be provided by the Network Access Service Provider, the Muni itself, and or anyone of many 3rd party ISP's. This Internet piece needs to be packaged and delivered separately by bandwidth.

However, what is becoming a very important Service today and will become more important with all the new Content/Apps being developed is gaining a direct LOCAL link to ones office using a local IP network (no need for the Internet). The Muni will be one of the bigger users of this local connection back to their Muni LAN-They do not need an Internet service but simply an IP (Ethernet) link between Access network and their LAN.
P2P type services like Video/Music sharing, MultiPlayer Gaming and document sharing do not require an Internet link and will become a heavy burden on any Wireless Access Network as well as the Metro Area IP backbones being used.

My contention is that the Muni/City should make a nominal investment in the Wireless Access backbone and in special needs areas(high crime and select low income housing areas) where there is very little commercial value to the Service Provider. This investment will also guarantee them (Muni)unfettered/free access to the Wireless Access network (at a fixed bandwidth rate/user)for all their employees.

The Muni Service side:
Since the Muni already have an Internet service for their operations they can increase it and use it to deliver special Internet Service links to address their Muni Digital Inclusion plans. The Service provider can also be required to offer X amount of free Access in designated areas (with a bandwidth and total monthly cap).

By addressing these pieces separately you will have far more options in any negotiation on ownership and operation.


FYI the Budget Analyst report is not a political group they work for the Board of Supervisors - like the Inspector General, the city contracts for this work through outside representation.

Glenn, I have to reiterate the comments of "anonymous" above. While several members of the Board of Supervisors have been critical of the deal, the Budget Analyst is an independent, neutral research organization, like the Government Accountability Office or the states' legislative auditors.

The report states the facts of the process, and finds that it wasn't consistent with either elected officials directives, or the consultant's own statement of best practices.

In reply to Jacomo, not all backhauls are proprietary; there are open-source, open standards alternatives. In the US, the most notable are CUWiN and Roofnet. I can't speak for roofnet, but CUWiN is designed with internet access as an optional feature; it is not the sole goal of a CUWiN network. Rather, it focuses on community and internal communications, and distributing internet access is an added bonus to the infrastructure. (for more info, see

I do agree that bandwidth, even internally, is an issue that requires serious consideration and planning, especially as demand for more bandwidth-intensive applications rises.