MuniFi: Build it and they still don’t come?

MuniFi has now been live long enough in many cities to get some feedback. Like we predicted, this year many of these bigger networks will now be put to the test.

And well, certain initial findings are a little troubling when it comes to consumer use of some city-wide Wi-Fi networks.

The Chronicle took a trip to Taipei to check out the 15-month old, Wi-Fi network run by Q-Ware, which is one of the world’s largest. Their assessment:

The city has struggled to get subscribers to sign up for the service . . . due to some perceived performance issues, competition from free hotspots and a lack of applications.

Q-Ware told the Chronicle the network had brought in an average of 20,000 monthly subscribers ($12 a month) and about 10,000 subscribers with daily, weekly or monthly one-time passes. Those figures might sound high for some networks, but Q-Ware’s $30 million investment (some say the costs are higher) was supposed to bring in an initial projection of 250,000 average users by the end of last year, and 200,000 average users to break even.

The New York Times took a look at the network last June, and found “just 40,000 of Taipei’s 2.6 million residents have agreed to pay for the service since January.” Does that mean the subscriber numbers have actually dropped over the past several months? Uh-oh.

While small in comparison to Taipei, the Lompoc (Calif.) city Wi-Fi network is causing some concern with a lack of interest from residents, according to The Lompoc Record. The article published Monday says:

Weak signals, which delayed the city’s WiFi system for five months, are still plaguing the $3 million Lompoc Net system, although city officials say the customer base is beginning to grow.

The article says the network went live last September, and brought in 137 customers, and now there are just 281 customers — far less than the city needs to make the service financially viable.

Portland’s MetroFi network seems to be having its own problems with coverage according to an initial study by an independent team that also works with Portland’s Personal Telco Project (update: the authors of the study say their work was not officially part of the Personal Telco Project). I asked Earthlink for its latest subscriber numbers of its live networks, and the company said they are not providing those figures right now.

A major problem is the one that Wi-Fi consultant Craig Settles pointed out to us in January, that “public access of city-wide Wi-Fi networks will be widely viewed as financially the weakest pillar in the business case for municipal wireless,” by the end of 2007. Instead, mobile workforce applications will be muni networks’ big ROI generator, he says.

It looks like this situation is playing out for some of these networks. Cities that rely mainly on consumer use to sustain the network, might want to rethink things.

The gap is also in perception of what these networks can be used for. If consumers are looking for guaranteed 3G style coverage outside, as well as indoor coverage without extra hardware, they will be disappointed. If they’re looking for blazing fiber-fast bandwidth over Wi-Fi, they probably won’t get that on most MuniFi networks either.

Note to network builders: be truthful or risk consumer backlash.

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