Can Muni Wi-Fi be Free?

By Naomi Graychase

March 22, 2006

The author of a book on citywide wireless networks offers advice to governments in the planning stages.

Much as cities and towns around the country loathe to hear it, when it comes to municipal Wi-Fi, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. At least that’s how Craig Settles sees it.

Settles, a Northern California-based consultant, researcher, and author of three books— including his most recent, Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless: Applying Lessons from Philadelphia’s Wi-Fi Story—recently completed a study assessing the major issues facing municipalities that want to implement citywide broadband wireless networks.

The report, “What’s the Price of ‘Free?’” is the first in a series of “Municipal Wireless Snapshots” available for free download at his Web site. For “What’s the Price of Free,” Settles interviewed 13 city CIOs, vendors and individuals currently involved in some significant capacity with municipal wireless projects. His interview subjects were associated with cities all across the country, which were at various stages of planning or deployment.

The 32-page study published last month concludes that the concept of free muni wireless is a dangerous illusion.

“Someone at some point in time is going to have to pay something for this network,” the report states. “Some of the price will be monetary, while part of the price could be missed opportunities and unintended consequences if people don’t take more time as well as stop trying to get something for nothing.”

The biggest mistake politicians tend to make, says Settles, is to move too quickly.

“They don’t think before they act,” he says. “For whatever reason, people don’t think through what all this means. The shortcoming in politics is the short easy answer. They think in two- and four-year political life-cycles. They get to announce it and do the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, but they don’t have to live and breathe the process, as opposed to the people in the community who have to live with or without it.”

Settles reports that a large part of the problem is connected to the use of the word “free” in association with municipal wireless.

“The problem is that the word ‘free’ builds a certain expectation among the political groups,” says Settles. “Constituents expect that they will get it and it won’t cost them anything. So either you bait and switch them, or you tell them later that it can’t be free after all, or they buy it and then it’s really tacky and fairly useless.”

After studying cities including St. Cloud, Florida; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Philadelphia, Settles compiled a list of things successful cities have in common. He recommends, for instance, that any city that is considering launching a public Wi-Fi network begin by thinking about the people who are going to put that network to use.

“There are four reasons to chase after this: better government, economic development, digital inclusion, and inexpensive public access,” says Settles. “Regardless of which combination of these you pursue, if you don’t spend time talking to the potential users, you won’t come up with a network that’s useful.”

Settles also argues that someone with a strong understanding of the technologies and various options available must be aligned with the city. 

“You need to understand enough to ask a legitimate, logical question in the middle of a meeting,” he says. “You need to have some way to grasp what the base level issues are in the technology.”

And, Settles asserts, perhaps most essential to launching a successful muni network is a broad-based understanding of relevant business options, which includes taking a total inventory of all of the city’s related assets.

“Every 30 days, something new catches their eyes and they change direction,” he says. “It’s like lemmings getting whiplash. Everything is very myopic and reactionary. What cities need to do is look at the full range of possibilities. They rest on the fact that they have access to light poles and tall buildings. But they also have their population as an asset, and other city resources like fiber already in place.”

Among the potential models endorsed by Settles is sponsorship. He believes cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, which are home to professional sports teams, would be wise to capitalize on the mutually beneficial relationship between the team and its hometown.

The Carolina Hurricanes one season spent a fair amount of money doing mobile marketing to build up attendance at their games,” he says. “If  a city is looking at spending $100 million to keep them there and build a new stadium, why not say, ‘How about you guys just become our primary sponsor, underwrite the cost of the network, and then you can use it for all sorts of push promotions to fill your stadium week after week?’”

Devising plans such as this one, which would establish a mutually beneficial relationship for a business looking for a successful marketing strategy and for the citizens of a town, is the kind of creative but grounded thinking Settles hopes to encourage.

“There needs to be this expanded vision of what all your options are, instead of a knee-jerk reaction,” he says. “Before any city has an RFP, they need to have a business plan. If you don’t know how to write one, go hire someone who does.”

Originally published on .

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