June 5, 2007 5:00 PM PDT

Bringing public Wi-Fi to small-town America

NEWTON, Mass.--When it comes to building the infrastructure that makes public high-speed Internet access possible, companies are keen to take on projects for large cities. However, smaller cities are another story.

During the past 18 months, MultiState Associates, a consulting firm for lobbyists, has compiled a database on more than 2,000 communities with populations of 60,000 or more interested in developing municipal broadband or wireless services. The database includes cities in the early stages of public broadband interest, not just those that have put out requests for proposals (RFPs) to companies.

Its data shows that while thousands of towns are interested in developing municipal networks, few vendors are willing to take on small projects.

"I think towns are putting out RFPs faster than the industry can respond. I mean, there are several thousand cities pursuing this; there are only so many vendors pursuing smaller cities," Mitch Gorsen, vice president at MultiState Associates, said in an interview.

"There are several thousand cities pursuing this; there are only so many vendors pursuing smaller cities."
--Mitch Gorsen,
vice president, MultiState Associates

"There is no lack of vendors for responding to Chicago and Boston. But you drop to tier 2 and there is only resellers. Motorola will take an RFP from a place like Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., and they send it to their reseller in Florida and say, 'You go do this,'" Gorsen said.

EarthLink and AT&T in a panel at MuniWireless New England here on Tuesday said that population density is a factor when they consider taking on a project. As businesses, they want to see a return on their investment through things like subscription services or advertising revenue, depending on the business model.

"We've come out publicly about revising our strategy about the cities we'll go after," Cole Reinwald, vice president of product strategy and marketing for EarthLink Municipal Networks, said in the panel discussion.

"We should be looking at cities with densities of about 2,500 people per square mile. As tech costs drop, we'll be able to bring that number down," he said.

"I never say no to any deal, because I always believe there's a deal. But it's about a value-driven deployment that balances between the need of your city and the needs of our shareholders," said Carl Nerup, vice president of development at AT&T.

The towns want a big company that will be there forever and take care of everything, but the vendors don't necessarily want them as clients, Gorsen said.

As a result, towns will have to figure out a way to build a broadband infrastructure on their own, according to Esme Vos, who founded MuniWireless in June 2003, an organization dedicated to municipal broadband. Vos maintains a blog on the status of public broadband projects around the world.

"I see it (public broadband) as a utility like water or electricity. I see it as the thing that carries a lot of other things. A road carries car traffic, motorcycle traffic, not just one type of car," Vos said. There are communities in the U.S. and Europe that small towns can look to for examples of how to do it, she said.

Ring of communication
In rural towns in the European Union, for example, they build a fiber ring and then attach WiMax antennas that send a signal to a town. From there, the signal is dropped down to users via Wi-Fi. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also earmarked funds for communities interested in building municipal broadband networks, Vos said.

"What I see is that the people who are late in deploying are learning from people who have gone before. There are interesting projects that will be announced this summer that will not just concentrate on free Wi-Fi, but on municipal services," Vos said.

Using a public broadband infrastructure as a platform for city services is a way to save money. Aside from applications that can be used to cut down on city services costs, public safety uses can qualify a municipality for federal funds. There are grants available from Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for municipalities planning to use their broadband infrastructure to carry proprietary networks for police and first responders.

In other instances, a large corporation in a small town looking for a better broadband infrastructure may be willing to partner with the town so that its residents could also benefit.

That is the case with a large insurance company in a small Wisconsin town. Azulstar, a wireless broadband company, plans to make an announcement next week on a project to build a broadband infrastructure that will benefit both, but there's a reason they're willing to go there, said Yorke Rhodes, chief executive officer of Azulstar.

"There is a large insurance company that has committed to a tenant revenue, so we will go in," Rhodes said in a panel discussion at MuniWireless. Rhodes didn't identify either the company or the town.

"We wouldn't be in a small town in Wisconsin were it not for this insurance company that is looking to bring that to their community. That commitment can come from people in the municipality or businesses that are interesting in doing that for the town," he said.

Rhodes also said that municipalities that have done their homework are more welcome when it comes to discussing outsourcing for specific management or maintenance needs with relation to their broadband network.

"The more preparation that is done on the side of the customer, the better they will come to the table prepared, obviously, and we can have a meaningful conversation. We go through qualification steps. We don't like to say no out of the gate either," Rhodes said.

Can small towns make money from their broadband investment? Vos and Gorsen both said it's possible, but will take careful planning on the part of the town.

Gorsen pointed out that as taxes from landlines wane, towns may look to things like voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as a way to make money from their broadband infrastructures. This could work either through taxes applied to VoIP services or through lease agreements for the infrastructure with providers.

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Wireless broadband access
Public Wi-Fi should not be tax-supported. Every taxpayer supporter service of this kind that I know of has failed. My favorite example is Ashland, Oregon, which ran its private providers out of town so the city could reap all the financial benefits they thought they'd get. It has turned into a huge money sink.

OTOH, my town of 30,000 has wireless broadband provided by a company that also owns the local family-owned newspaper. They have made wireless available for free in the downtown area.

We also have Verizon DSL service and Comcast Cable services competing for our business. There's a public fiber network that is still mostly unused - only government entities use it.

Why can't these other cities make it possible (via lower taxes and fewer regulations and more competition) for their local, private businesses to provide this service?
Posted by LaPajarita (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Public Wi-Fi
I think as time goes on people will start to view Internet access as a utility like water or power so it's not out of line to make sure everybody has reasonably priced access. There are some good case studies here: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.muniwireless.com/article/articleview/13/1/24" target="_newWindow">http://www.muniwireless.com/article/articleview/13/1/24</a>

I'm not saying they can be declared successful but they aren't failures, either. Public/private partnerships are a good thing.
Posted by trisor (19 comments )
Link Flag
Small Wisconsin Town
I'm betting they're refrring to Stevens Point a town of around 25,000 almost dead center in the middle of Wisconsin. It's the home of Sentry/Dairyland Insurance.
Posted by trisor (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why WiFi
Why just not to skip over WiFi and go directly to true mobility - 3G and 4G.

Networks soon coming in place and technology availible. Good examples are Europe where 3G is ramping up fast and Australia. Australia have a continent wide wireliss broadband today, operated by Telstra.
Feels like US is way behind, as on mobile phones in the 1990-2000.
Posted by realkefer (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
WI-FI access $19.95 per month, Cellular access $69.95.
when carriers think they OWN the spectrum, they charge more money. Radios built for carriers are easily 100 times as costly as those built for publc frequencies.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Link Flag
KEEP 700 MHz public, don't sell to greedy carriers.
The new found ability of wireless designers to incorporate beam forming inexpensively opens up a world of UNLIMITED BANDWIDTH.

Beams of wireless Internet do NOT interefere with each other any more than two beams of light.

The 700 MHz spectrum, which will be freed as the last analogue TV stations go off the air, has excellent propagation, and is being actively pursued by the cellular companies who want to OWN the spectrum.

The AIRWAVES BELONG TO THE PEOPLE, and if 700 is made a public space like 2.4 GHz, but with better specifications on radio design, small Internet operators will be able to interoperate with public safety and commercial carriers.

Call you congressman and ask them to pressure the FCC to halt all bandwidth auctions, especially at 700 MHz.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Reply Link Flag
List of all cities with free public Wi-Fi
A great resource for finding free WiFi cities, downtown areas and muni-fi zones is at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.openwifispots.com/guide_free_wireless_zones.aspx" target="_newWindow">http://www.openwifispots.com/guide_free_wireless_zones.aspx</a>
Posted by slandersfamily (3 comments )
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