Still early days for municipal Wi-Fi

Municipal Wi-Fi has been a hot topic for a while and shows no signs of cooling off. Late last month Google launched a free Wi-Fi service in its home town of Mountain View, Calif., making the city of 72,000 the largest U.S. city to offer a completely free broadband wireless network. Google’s Wi-Fi launch followed the city of Boston’s late July unveiling of a plan to offer a municipal Wi-Fi service. And Toronto Hydro Telecom is getting set to roll out the first phase of its planned city-wide Wi-Fi network this fall.

The implications of municipal Wi-Fi for enterprises are still a little murky. At first glance it looks like a great idea. Who wouldn’t want their mobile workforce to have access to a broadly deployed wireless network? Unfortunately getting mobile employees hooked into a municipal Wi-Fi network isn’t that simple.

Part of the problem is there’s no set definition of what constitutes a municipal Wi-Fi service. Some cities may offer the service for free. Others plan to charge some kind of fee, although in most cases, including Toronto, they haven’t decided exactly what that fee will be. It’s tough for an enterprise to decide whether it wants its workers to use a network, when the enterprise can’t figure out what the service will cost.

Then there’s the always present issue of wireless security. Enterprises can get around the security problem by ensuring mobile users have VPN software on their devices. If enterprises have users who have been made newly mobile to take advantage of a municipal Wi-Fi network, they’ll also need to educate the users about how important it is to make sure any connection back to the enterprise is made over a secure, encrypted link and how crucial it is that users protect their passwords.

Finally there’s the question of quality of service (QoS). On a free, or low-cost, public network, what kind of performance can users expect to get and what kind of applications will they be able to run over the network?

While municipal Wi-Fi is definitely something to keep an eye on, it’s still too early for business users to get very excited about it.

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