Free As In Lunch

I probably should have written about this a long time ago – just so I could be on the record when I say "I told you so." If you know me, you’ve heard me say it before. If you don’t, I’ll say it now:

Municipal WiFi is going to be a nightmare.

What??? No! It’s going to be great! Whole cities blanketed in WiFi! Free for all! Joyous citizens united in orgasmic WiFi dancing!

Not going to happen.

First, there is no such thing as free WiFi. I know, because my company runs one of the largest free WiFi networks in the world.

Ummm….yup. It costs money. I know what’s next… OK, fine. Advertisers will foot the bill. I’ll take that at face value for a moment. You know what? It’s not that easy. Not for a city anyways.

Here’s the problem: WiFi is designed to go about 100 feet. Sure there are ways to extend it, to get longer distances, but they are hard and expensive. Honestly? WiFi is a crappy way to get large scale internet access (it’s only a marginally good way to get small scale internet access). It’s prone to interference for starters. Wanna microwave some popcorn? Use that cordless phone? Well, that’s the same signal as WiFi and it’s going to get in the way. And believe me, the longer you try to extend it, the more things are going to get in the way. If your city is the size of a mall, WiFi is great. If it’s any larger…well, it gets complicated.

The idea is great. Utopian society united by free WiFi. Believe me, no one likes free WiFi more than I do. But the problems are huge. The promises cities are making are gigantic, and they simply are not going to come true. Atlanta has been talking about citywide free WiFi for 4 years. To date there is not one free hotspot that I am aware of that has come from that effort. Meanwhile companies like Ripple and Panera Bread have been lighting up whole chunks of cities where people actually want to use WiFi: Restaurants, coffee shops, waiting areas. While cities talk, the private sector has taken action. While cities fret about the costs, smart retailers think about profits from happy customers. Simply put, this is going to be a herculean effort that cities have no reason to be a part of, and that is doomed to fail. And my sympathy goes out to the private sector companies that think it’s going to be a plumb government contract for decades of future revenues. It’s not. So many technologies – almost all of them better than WiFi – are around the corner. And if I am paying for the WiFi? Well, I’m going to want it to work. I’m going to want it to work in my house, my office, my favorite hangouts. The allure of using WiFi on the street corner is not going to trump that. And I am telling you – WiFi just doesn’t have the goods.

Cellular providers and telcos and retailers are the folks best positioned to get the Internet into every nook and cranny. Not cities. It seems to me cities have a lot more pressing issues to spend their time on. But if we’re not careful, they’ll be managing the albatross of municipal Wifi instead.

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