Why reports of muni Wi-Fi’s death are exaggerated

Municipal Wi-Fi has entered a new and unpleasant phase. Despite reports to the contrary, however, metro-scale Wi-Fi is not dead.

True, it’s a little shaken and wounded, but it will come back stronger than ever. And it remains on the path of ubiquity with no meaningful competition. In fact, its current difficulties are quite predictable; most significant new technologies stumble at first.

There’s no denying, however, the current run of bad news about municipal Wi-Fi. EarthLink, which clearly has been counting on metro-scale Wi-Fi to replace its rapidly dwindling dial-up business (does anyone even remember how to use a modem at this point?), announced significant layoffs. It also canceled its deal with San Francisco and paid Houston a penalty for missing a build-out deadline.

And Chicago canceled its plans for a city-run network. Wow — this looks bad!

Perhaps we could conclude that with all that bad press, why would anyone bother with metro Wi-Fi today? Stick a fork in it — it’s done. We don’t even really need it, do we? After all, there’s cellular data, WiMax is on the way, and there’s lots of wire that is suitable for hooking up home Wi-Fi routers.

But hang on a second. Wi-Fi’s woes, and those of any relatively new technology, can be accurately predicted and easily explained by a wonderful little book originally published in 1991 — Geoffrey Moore’s classic Crossing the Chasm.

The core message of this book is simple: All new technologies stumble on the way up the bell-shaped life-cycle demand curve; the stumbling point is called the chasm. The reason the chasm exists is simple: Exciting new technologies, like metro-scale Wi-Fi, have no good prior business models to fall back on.

We’re not talking evolution here, but rather revolution — a dramatic break with the past. And, like anything powerful and new, it’s usually not clear at first exactly what users will do with it. Nor is it often clear how best to roll out the technology. Gradually, the hype exceeds the reality and, voila, a chasm. That’s where we are today with municipal Wi-Fi.

But is there anything fundamentally wrong with the technology? No. Is the competition going to swamp metro Wi-Fi? No way. Wi-Fi is both cheaper and faster than cellular and is very complementary with wireless wide-area networks. In fact, the convergence of the two will dominate future mobile networks.

Indeed, Wi-Fi really has no competition and is the only wireless technology that works everywhere, in the same way, globally. It’s real broadband. It can’t fail.

So, how does metro Wi-Fi cross the chasm? I believe that one of the key reasons it’s had such a hard time so far is that local governments have been much too involved in policies surrounding its deployment. In particular, local governments have been demanding free service and pervasive coverage that, while politically interesting, are not always appropriate.

This bit of meddling didn’t occur with cellular, so why should it be the case with Wi-Fi? Well, the short answer is that when cellular was deployed, it was all about telephony; almost everyone had a telephone when cellular appeared. Mobile phones were viewed as a luxury or toy for rich folks to put in their cars. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is primarily viewed as being all about broadband access to the Web, and that’s a different story. Broadband wires don’t go everywhere, but Wi-Fi signals can.

Given the lack of competition, it’s really just a question of local municipalities getting out of the way and letting the private sector do what it does best. Worst case, we’ll have to wait a few years until the cellular operators begin their build-out of metro-scale Wi-Fi. As I’ve noted before, and somewhat ironically, they need the capacity that Wi-Fi provides best.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

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