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MuniFi, VoIP & Great (UnMet) Expecations

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Over the past few weeks, there has been a steady increase in the number of articles questioning the wisdom of municipal WiFi networks and wondering if they really will ever realize their potential. It seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.

With some of the existing MuniFi networks plagued by technological and business model issues, some cities such as Milwaukee, are rethinking their MuniFi plans and taking a more cautious approach, before committing themselves. The trials and tribulations of MuniFi’s biggest commercial champion, Earthlink, haven’t helped matters either.

The San Francisco MuniFi effort is mired in political morass, while Google (GOOG), one of the most visible champions of MuniFi, seems to have shifted its attention on the 700 MHz wireless auctions.

MuniFi, to some extent, has been a victim of putting expectations ahead of reality. MuniFi used to be seen as the panacea of all our broadband problems, giving us the ability to roam free and make VoIP calls while watching the great Meteor shower. Reality turned out to be a bit different.

Andy Abramson laments about the poor performance of Philadelphia and Anaheim networks, especially their ability to handle VoIP traffic.

I have to say that part of the blame is the deployment of a mesh network architecture from Tropos…..Tropos officials admitted to me earlier this week that mesh as it currently sits is not really ready for VoIP until the voice 802.11 R standard comes along.

One of the reasons why MuniFi seems disappointing is because the “selling” of the concept involved offering consumers Internet access. Yet a recent report from Forrester Research shows only a tiny percentage of general consumers using muni wireless. Craig Settles, an independent consultant, points out that consumer is the weak link.

If the MuniFi networks focused on public service, government, first responder and educational services, it would be easier to make a business case. Settles conducted a survey of 318 economic development directors, managers and professionals which takes an in-depth look at the actualand potential impact of muni broadband on economic development. (Download Report, PDF file)

His findings are pretty surprising. For instance, in municipalities where networks are in place, “[B]etween two and three times as many feel wired rather than wireless muni networks will have a direct impact on attracting, retaining and improving businesses.”

We are not ready to write off MuniFi just as yet, just like we didn’t see it as the much vaunted third pipe for consumer broadband. Over next few months, technology will improve, and communities will find a happy medium. And maybe we will use our WiFi mobile phones in the park!

11 Responses to “MuniFi, VoIP & Great (UnMet) Expecations”

  1. kimo crossman


    This is in many ways the direction we have advocated for the last two years – this is good news and the political morass you mention is a result of the Mayor’s refusal to change direction – this is exactly how politics should work to stop poor ideas like the original EarthLink proposal.

  2. Telecom Guy

    WiFi muni networks will never be successful due to both technical and business reasons:

    1) Wired broadband solutions (cable, fiber, copper) can provide more bandwidth. Why get a sub 1 mbps wifi service when you get multiple megabit service on a wired technology?

    2) 3G networks are being widely deployed (EvDO & HSDPA). Similar speeds with more predictable performance.

    3) Public safety will use the 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz spectrum for future deployments. Many of the existing muni networks have public safety as the anchor customers. Public safety agencies want reliability and good coverage. WiFi strugges with both.

    4) WiFi has the stigma of being free (at cafes, hotels, bookstores, etc.). People are not willing to pay for WiFi.

    5) VOIP and WiFi just don’t mix. Argue all you want, it is just reality. The only way to get VOIP working is to over engineer the network to the point that the deployment is too expensive and not scalable.

    6) I work with state and local governments everyday. They are fundamentally not set up to be service providers. They are not customer centric. They can’t afford to pay the IT talent to run the networks. They don’t have sales/marketing departments. The list goes on….

    7) Service providers (both wired and wireless) will continue to apply pressures at all political and business levels to make sure local governments don’t become service providers. When service providers, regardless of the technology has spent billions on their networks (equipment, spectrum, right away, franchise agreements, etc.), they will fight to protect these investments.

    8) Indoor penetration. 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum (FCC power limits) make indoor penetration nearly impossible. You can’t break the laws of physics.

    LAST: Don’t get me wrong, WiFi is a great technology. It is a LAN technology, not a MAN technology.

  3. I do not agree that the network performance in Philadelphia has anything to do with the absence of 802.11R. It is entirely as a result of a poorly designed network architecture and the deployment of 1st generation mesh equipment. There are many excellent examples of broadband wireless mesh networks that fully support carrier grade VoIP today.

  4. Jesse Kopelman

    I think, in the end, WiFi is really not the right technology for metro-sized networks. The problem is not its unlicensed nature, contrary to what many tell you, but its contention based access control. What it brings to the table is low cost terminals and even better yet integrated devices (built-in WiFi in laptops, smart phones, and other devices). If we see Intel’s WiMAX Centrino supporting a wide range of unlicensed frequencies that could spur a switch to WiMAX for Muni Wireless and much better performing networks in the next 2-3 years.

    A separate issue is that there is no free way to fix the Digital Divide. If addressing Digital Divide issues is a primary goal of a Muni Wireless network, that network will not be self funding. It’s just that simple. So, you either fix the issue by spending tax payer money (like you do to fix the street or install a sewer) or you use regulation to force commercial interests to do it — likely resulting in costs being passed to consumers. One way or another The People have to pay.

  5. tomcoseven

    Om — The problem with all unlicensed approaches (802.11, 700Mhz white spaces, etc…) is the metro-backhaul network. Unlicensed requires low-power, which requires geometrically more backhaul connectivity. Mesh networking is a kludge solution to the business case problem of building out the backhaul. Beamforming can provide some relief, but it can’t scale. “Wired” muni networks, by definition have backhaul connectivity built-in. Then the only problem is metro capacity (see BBC streaming issues in UK).