MuniFi, MuniWi or MuniMAX

With all the talk and debates about MuniFi, few have questioned the WiFi technology itself and how well WiFi will perform for large city-wide deployments. But interestingly enough, Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place not commonly thought about as a tech leader, has announced that it has officially selected Clearwire’s WiMAX solution to unwire its 45 square miles. The city says they have chosen Clearwire’s technology because it is “cost effective and sustainable,” according to the city manager Kurt Kimball.

Cleawire will provide a discounted service of $9.95 per month for low-income residents, and this will be administered by a non-profit agency that is yet to be determined (though they are pretty quiet on how much it will cost the rest of the residents.) The plan also includes free WiFI hotspots around the city.

A city memorandum says:

“This agreement between the City and Clearwire is the first of its kind in the company’s history. Although Clearwire has over thirty wireless broadband networks across the country, they have not previously partnered with local governments. Additionally, this agreement will provide the country’s first citywide WIMAX network to be built in Grand Rapids.”

The city is making an early and perhaps risky bet on WiMAX technology, given that even Sprint’s network won’t be up and widely available for a few years. Young wireless technologies can mean more expensive equipment and less testing of networks.

Craig Settles, who has written extensively about city wireless networks, says Grand Rapids could be making a smart move in the long run given the long- range characteristics of WiMAX. But he also says that residents could face a hassle when it comes to having to buy and use the extra WiMAX equipment. While Clearwire will also offer free Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the city, Settles says, “I might have hedged my bets and made WiFi a bigger part of the equation.”

Most cities are concentrating on what’s ubiquitous and cheap now: WiFi. And many cities are already starting to make deployments and lighting up networks. That’s when the real test happens — after the paperwork and deals are done, do these things really deliver what residents want?

Portland is getting a chance to answer that question today, and MetroFi says it has just turned on a section of its free Portland network. As we wrote about recently, MetroFi has partnered with Microsoft to offer both local, targeted content and advertising to Portland residents.

Philadelphia had the launch party for its WiFi network last week, and continues to test the proof of concept network , after launching several pilot test areas. Even San Francisco officials said recently that negotiations for the city’s WiFI network could be done shortly. (Somehow we think that one might be wishful thinking).