The news on municipal Wi-Fi is not encouraging. Several communities have recently pulled the plug on launching Wi-Fi, with Chicago being the most prominent. Word is that the citwide Wi-Fi efforts in San Francisco and Houston are in trouble as well. There are a few success stories. Corpus Christi, TX apparently has a successful model, and there are certainly others. Nevertheless, big challenges remain for large scale muni Wi-Fi projects. These challenges are hitting Earthlink hard. They’ve recently announced a restructuring, resulting in the loss of 900 jobs. Earthlink viewed municipal Wi-Fi as a growth engine for them – one they hoped would help replace their rapidly declining dial-up business. Unfortunately for Earthlink and other muni Wi-Fi proponents, the news doesn’t appear to be getting any better. The rise of WiMAX may prove to put muni Wi-Fi to bed for good.
WiMAX should begin to get off the ground in 2008. The high profile plans of Sprint and Cleariwire are well known, but there are also a number of smaller WiMAX deployments in the pipeline as well. One of the goals of muni Wi-Fi is to offer a true wireless broadband experience throughout the related municipality. An experience that may provide alternate broadband connectivity to DSL and cable modem. Existing muni Wi-Fi deployments are finding that is easier said than done. Blanketing a city with enough nodes to provide adequate and reliable coverage is costly and technically challenging. ARS Technica (excerpt below) discussed this issue, using the Philadelphia muni Wi-Fi project as an example, in a recent post.
“At first, EarthLink anticipated being able to blanket Philadelphia with between 20 to 25 nodes per square mile. Even after the baseline was raised to 30 nodes per square mile, coverage was still inadequate. EarthLink has had to install as many as 47 nodes per square mile in some areas, and its average in Philadelphia has worked out to be around 42. More nodes equals more money, and that means less room for a WiFi provider to make a buck.”
-Eric Bangeman, ARS Technica
Conceivably, WiMAX will have less of a problem meeting these expectations. It has better propagation than Wi-Fi, resulting in far fewer nodes required to produce adequate and reliable throughput. Should it live up to its promise, subscribers that may have been good candidates for muni Wi-Fi, may now see WiMAX as the better alternative. Now this of course will take time. The shear number of Wi-Fi enabled devices considerably outnumbers forthcoming WiMAX devices. Wi-Fi will maintain this lead for some time and thus still be a very viable broadband wireless option for the foreseeable future. But early indications from pre-WiMAX companies like Clearwire suggest that consumer’s broadband wireless appetite is growing. If these carriers are able to extend the WiMAX powered wireless broadband experience beyond the home, consumers may be willing takers. At that point, the need for Wi-Fi is considerably diminished. Combine that with the apparent floundering muni Wi-Fi movement, which aimed to make Wi-Fi a viable third broadband option, and WiMAX appears to have a promising future. One that may ultimately make muni Wi-Fi a discussion of the past.