Citywide Wi-Fi sees a grim future nationwide

Plans to build public wireless Internet access in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and several other cities have fallen apart.

Published August 31, 2007 4:55PM (EDT)

Internet service provider Earthlink notified San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom this week that it would not pursue a proposal to build out a publicly accessible Wi-Fi network in the city. Earthlink pulled back after a financial shakeup -- one that prompted cutting 900 jobs at the firm -- but now the fate of once-ambitious municipal wireless plans all over look bleak. Across the country, cities that had proposed to provide their citizens with free or cheap access to the wireless Internet are deciding otherwise.

Besides San Francisco, cities no longer going for muni Wi-Fi include Chicago, which says the effort is too expensive and wouldn't be very popular; Anchorage, Alaska, and Corona, Calif., which both bristled at terms put forward by network provider MetroFi; and Houston, Alexandria and Arlington, Va., and St. Petersburg, Fla., all of which were affected by Earthlink's financial troubles.

In addition, ISP Midwest Fiber has said it doubts that its Wi-Fi network in Milwaukee, which is currently in its testing phase, will attract enough customers to justify its investment.

Most of the muni Wi-Fi plans were set up as public-private partnerships. Cities contracted with tech companies to build out the networks; residents would enjoy basic, slow-speed Internet access for free, but would have to pay for faster speeds.

The plans looked forward-thinking and potentially lucrative to Internet providers that did not enjoy monopolistic access to cable or phone networks, most obviously Earthlink. Consumer advocates had also praised the efforts -- by providing a "third pipe" into urban homes, a way to access the Internet that went around traditional telecom monopolies, municipal Wi-Fi would potentially improve everyone's broadband access.

Google, which has recently expressed interest in setting up its own wireless network on the 700 MHz band of radio space that will go up for sale next year, favored municipal Wi-Fi for just this reason -- to free customers stuck under the thumb of cable and phone companies. Last year Google set up a muni Wi-Fi network in its home city of Mountain View, Calif. -- an effort that it calls a success -- and it had partnered with Earthlink's San Francisco bid.

Many of the plans stumbled over tech costs. It takes a lot more money to give a city Wi-Fi than service providers had predicted. And after you build it, would people come? Wireless networks already set up in several cities, including Philadelphia and New Orleans, have proved dodgy investments for their sponsoring companies, with residents complaining that the service was never consistent and speedy enough to prompt them to subscribe.

Newsom says he plans to find other vendors to provide Wi-Fi access to San Francisco. But technology may already have passed him by -- with the 700 MHz band partially freed up from telecom interference, and with innovative private companies like Meraki building shared, peer-to-peer citywide Wi-Fi systems in cities, municipal Wi-Fi does not look long for this world.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------