2007, Year of MuniFi

If 2006 was a year of many major muniFi launches, 2007 will be a year when these large-scale networks are actually put to the test. Muniwireless’ updated list of municipal WiFi networks shows that at the end of 2006, there were 312 cities and counties in the US that either have live networks, or are in the deployment or planning phase — that’s triple the number from early 2005.

Now that many cities have taken the plunge and turned on networks, this year we’ll likely start to get some answers to the many questions surrounding city-wide WiFi: Are a critical mass of consumers willing to pay to subscribe to these services, and at what price? Is the current network hardware good enough? Will cities end up saving money in public services, or wasting money on unused, weak networks? And will companies that dabbled with muniFi in 2006 like Microsoft, Clearwire, AT&T and Google, make more moves in 2007?

MuniFi is maturing and will do so even more this year. Cities, service providers and equipment vendors are already getting smarter and ditching plans that aren’t so attractive. The networks that launched last year will guide companies in what went right and what went wrong and a dose of reality will hopefully paint a clearer picture. Out of the 312 networks cited by Muniwireless, 149 are still in the planning phase, so all eyes will be on the large-scale live networks for valuable lessons.

Use of the networks will obviously depend on how well the networks are built — how robust the signal is and how far the coverage extends. There’s been some talk about limitations in Tropos’ hardware, and perhaps an upstart with newer technology will dethrown Tropos as the king of mesh hardware this year.

We definitely expect some shifts in the hardware vendor market as performance of the networks become even more important as more and more people start using them. There are challengers who would like nothing better to see the MuniFi networks fail, at least from an economic perspective. Clearwire for one is betting that WiMAX will be even better for city-wide networks. If 3G data plans drop in price and add speed with faster networks like EVDO Rev A, 3G PC cards will look even more attractive.

The business models of both Earthlink and MetroFi will also go through rigorous testing this year, as they are some of the first to charge ahead. MetroFi’s free WiFi based on ads will be pressed hard to make money, especially if big partners are taking a BIG cut of the revenues. Earthlink needs to build better networks if it’s going to charge consumers $20 per month.

If all goes well in trial runs for muniFi newcomers like Microsoft we’ll likely see some more viable alternatives to the Earthlink/Tropos/Motorola team emerge this year. We’re still waiting for bigger moves from the phone and cable companies, which were thought to move aggressively in 2006. Hopefully any alternatives will include more options like Boston’s non profit, which will focus on city needs and not only profits.

All of this is good news to us, because it just means more wireless broadband wireless options. We look forward to testing and critiquing more networks throughout 2007.