MetroFi Opens Concord, CA Net

By Eric Griffith

April 13, 2007

The provider launches its latest amid reports of its networks (and those of others) suffering a lack of adequate coverage and, worse, little subscriber interest.

Concord, California's citywide Wi-Fi network, courtesy of MetroFi, has begun deployment.

The initial coverage is 10.5 square miles, which covers "more than 60% of the developed areas of Concord, and includes over 250 access points (APs)," according to a statement released by the company. Coverage can be viewed via an online map. MetroFi installed its first pilot network there in June of 2006.

The network should be fully rolled out by this summer, at which point MetroFi says 95% of outdoor and indoor locations in the city will have access. The indoors will likely require customer premises equipment from companies like Ruckus Wireless or PePLink.

MetroFi made a name for itself by providing free-but-advertising-supported Wi-Fi in cities throughout Silicon Valley (Cupertino, Foster City, San Jose, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale) plus in Aurora, Illinois and Portland, Oregon. The company recently made a small change to the way it works -- it is now requiring municipalities it is working with to become anchor tenants of the network. Previous contracts with MetroFi did not require cities to buy service from the WISP. It may have been strongly suggested, but wasn't a given.

Craig Settles, a muni Wi-Fi analyst, has said that such networks will only see success when the municipalities stop looking for freebies and start accepting the savings they can get in operational costs. He says, "In Concord, California, they [the city] are saving $180,000 in cellular network charges." He believes public access to citywide Wi-Fi will always make the network provider far less money than other revenue streams.

This announcement comes on the heels of numerous reports this week regarding the dearth of subscriptions to municipal networks as well as a lack of promised network coverage.

MetroFi's own network in Foster City was taken to task by The Examiner for only reaching 60% of the city instead of the promised 95%. Its Portland, Oregon network was evaluated by the local Personal Telco Project as not offering anywhere near the coverage promised.  

Yet just yesterday, an Oregonian report said the Portland network "got a clean bill of health this week from an outside contractor hired to test the system." Uptown Services of Colorado was paid $22,000 to test for minimum speeds, but also stated that its results were not a guarantee that users would be able to sign on when they want, due to factors like signal noise and obstruction. MetroFi is installing new antennas and activating dormant antennas to increase service density in Portland. About 5,900 people signed up to use that network in March.

Other cities with issues -- specifically, a lack of subscriber interest -- include Lompoc, California, which only has 281 customers (adding just 24 per month, from a population of more than 41,000). Perhaps most telling, Taipei City, Taiwan, home of the largest metro-scale Wi-Fi deployment in the world (so far), has only 30,000 users. And that might be a drop since earlier this year. It is certainly fewer than they'd hoped for, out of the population of 2.6 million, especially considering the network cost operator Q-Ware $30 million to build. These two networks don't have free, ad-supported access, however.

MetroFi continues to provide not just sponsored free access, but a premium service with faster download speed for $20 a month (sans commercials).



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