Tag Archives: broadband sanfrancisco

Wi-Fi not all it’s cracked up to be

cross-posted from Left in SF

There have been a spate of reports this week about other cities’ wi-fi networks, and how they don’t actually get everybody online all the time. From Taipei’s aggressive citywide network to Lompoc’s fewer than 300 subscribers, it seems that few, if any, networks are successful as a way for large numbers of citizens to get online.

see why this matters to California (or at least San Francisco) after the flip

A major problem is the one that Wi-Fi consultant Craig Settles pointed out to us in January, that “public access of city-wide Wi-Fi networks will be widely viewed as financially the weakest pillar in the business case for municipal wireless,” by the end of 2007. Instead, mobile workforce applications will be muni networks’ big ROI generator, he says.

It looks like this situation is playing out for some of these networks. Cities that rely mainly on consumer use to sustain the network, might want to rethink things.

The gap is also in perception of what these networks can be used for. If consumers are looking for guaranteed 3G style coverage outside, as well as indoor coverage without extra hardware, they will be disappointed. If they’re looking for blazing fiber-fast bandwidth over Wi-Fi, they probably won’t get that on most MuniFi networks either.

Note to network builders: be truthful or risk consumer backlash.

The “mobile workforce applications” are things that we’ve talked about before, like building inspectors having access to filed plans or outreach workers being able to look up open shelter spots. As I mentioned previously, the proposed San Francisco network does not include explicit plans for city use. Some of that could be the result of poor planning by Newsom and DTIS, but it’s also likely that the city’s not planning on using the network because it won’t be good enough. LA does not seem to be giving city uses much thought either.

What’s perhaps most relevant to San Francisco, though, is that all of these networks have set expectations too high. None of them, however, have set expectations as high as have they been set in San Francisco. People who favor the Earthlink contract are advocating it as the solution to the very real crisis of lack of internet access in many of San Francisco’s communities. What happens when the network doesn’t actually provide internet access for the people who need it most? Or even worse, when it does provide casual access to the people that are already connected (politically and to the internet) and not to the folks who need it most?

We need to solve the problem of San Franciscans not having access to the internet. If a citywide wi-fi network along the lines of the Earthlink deal will do it, then let’s do that. The experiences of other cities, however, indicate that we should be skeptical about the likelihood that the Earthlink network will solve people’s access problems.