Blog Post

How to Fix Muni Wi-Fi

As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And so it has been with municipal Wi-Fi. While the goal of providing free access to citizens is a noble one, muni W-Fi proponents have misunderstood how the Internet is used in public spaces, primarily by assuming that people who can afford laptops are somehow unable to afford Internet access.

The majority of us have the means to pay for mobile voice and data service, especially now that companies like Metro PCS offer cheap, unlimited plans. However, there is a large population of people who can’t pay rent, much less afford a MacBook or a BlackBerry loaded with all the extras. Perhaps a better solution is to update the concept of lifeline coverage to make it universal and automatic.

It seems reasonable to me to require mobile operators — as a condition for siting cell towers throughout a community — to provide basic service to users who can’t afford it. What might this wireless “lifeline” service look like?

  • 24×7 access to emergency and social services (911, 311, local agencies)
  • 15 minutes per day of voice calls
  • Basic data service, downgraded when the network is in demand from paying users
  • Ability to upgrade to paid plans
  • Paid plans that go delinquent or to zero balance are automatically downgraded to “lifeline” phones with limited service
  • Ability to re-use second-hand phones

In exchange for supporting the concept of universal service, the mobile operators would receive permission to build more cell towers, tax credits and other incentives to add incremental capacity. They’re already building out networks, so the cost of supporting a population of low-impact users should be minimal, especially since they can ration service to non-paying users during peak periods. Many of these people will also upgrade to paid plans when they can afford it.

It seems to me that the proponents of muni Wi-Fi tried to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. Anyone who can afford a laptop can generally afford a cheap DSL or cable connection, or can find a hotspot when they need to get online. Extending broadband Internet to an entire city might be great for road warriors, but for the average person, it’s a solution looking for a problem. The real problem is economics, not access, and that’s something a public-private partnership between cities and mobile operators can solve, and quickly, because it’s not necessary to build an entirely new network to support these users. It might not be necessary to build any new infrastructure if mobile operators can figure out how to ration service during periods of high demand from paying users.

Most of us who read this site take communication for granted, and frankly, have a warped view of what people outside the tech industry need. Talk to a tradesperson or someone who falls under the category of the “working poor” and you’ll get a much different view of what’s important (things like an affordable place to live, basic services, the means to find work and get things done). A cheap or free mobile phone can mean the difference between finding work and not, especially for transient populations (unfortunately a growing population thanks to the recession and mortgage crisis).

A well-designed wireless lifeline service could be developed at little cost to either a city or to mobile operators, yet would enable even the poorest of the poor to have the same access to information, services and jobs that the rest of us take for granted. If it works here, the model could be copied everywhere, especially in developing countries where the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more pronounced.

Brian McConnell is the founder of the Worldwide Lexicon project and Der Mundo.

15 Responses to “How to Fix Muni Wi-Fi”

  1. To finish my thought, those companies never drove the need for the bandwidth. They just build monolithic infrastructures without knowing why. We have not only designed a far less expensive infrastructure, we designed marketing ideas that communities will embrace to drive more revenue and break the digital divide barrier. For example, our “Education Everywhere” program allows students to get access to school networks while giving the school the option if they want the students to get to Internet, possibly with some heavy retrictions. Wi-Fi allows this model at $5-$10 per month versus normal access costs. This is just one idea that we will be deploying with our network.

  2. All of these arguments are based on the premise that municipal Wi-Fi doesn’t have a useable financial model. If you drop the capital expenditure by a factor of 10, it’s not only financially feasible, it opens up many markets. Add in scalable bandwidth costs based on actual sales, simplify the infrastructure, and I believe it will work fine. I have the outline on my website. We start deployment in a couple of weeks so I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

  3. McConnell is on the right track — public private partnerships, helping poor people become economically independent, and helping them to upgrade to better plans as they can afford them. He should be encouraged to take the next steps to flesh out his ideas with more and better data.

    And if they are thinking clearly, the mobile communication companies will help fund that effort.

    I’ve blogged his comments at ReasonedResponse.Com, but find it interesting that here the comments both attack his ideas and attempt to defend the failed muni wi-fi fiasco.

    Dave McClure

  4. Tom Poe

    Local Broadband infrastructure. It means, to me, every house has a wireless cloud. Computers connect in a community-wide mesh network without Internet access. High speed broadband enables data, voice, video to flow comfortably throughout the community. The cost appears to be down to $50 per house.

    Local broadband infrastructure enables users to attract local telemedicine programs, town hall meetings, even virtual world settings for clubs, churches, organizations, education-related activities, events, all unique to meeting the community’s needs.

    If an incumbent wants to gain access to the local broadband infrastructure, they can bid on providing reasonable wholesale pricing for residents. By the way, local broadband infrastructure, once in place, is free for all, and can be monitored and maintained without technical expertise. is one resource to consider.

    Seems like a sound foundation for communities to build on. Wonder why there are no advocates for this approach?

  5. I agree with Totoro. Earthlink and Metrofi overran profitable companies with stupid business models. Now that they are gone, it’s going to take some time to repair the damage. Just getting meetings with city officials takes weeks and after the debacles recently, they take a little more convincing.

    You will see systems from us and several other companies coming out again. Just be patient.

  6. Brian,

    Its a nice idea: “My point is that while the concept of municipal wi-fi is a noble one, it is wasteful to build a separate wide area network when the mobile operators have already invested in building cellular networks, which incidentally are better suited for wide area networks.”

    Except its flat out wrong. Those networks AREN’T better suited for serving as a primary internet conduit for most people in the USA. There are drop outs, there are bandwidth limits, there are usage maximums, there are latency issues, there are significant coverage restrictions (3G is only available in cities), and there are high prices (compared to getting low cost DSL). Wide area “cell data” networks are very different from Wi-Fi mesh networks, and Wi-Fi network hardware goes up in speed by an order of magnitude every 5 years (first 802.11, then .11b, then .11g, then .11n, and so on).

    And your other straw man: “Governments are not naturally suited to building or managing communication networks.”…

    Correct, but irrelevant. Yes, some muni-wireless initiatives were backed by direct government involvement, but more of them weren’t. Philadelphia was run and operated and even designed by a non-profit and a private company. San Francisco was entirely operated by a private entity (or would have been). Many others have very little direct government involvement except where appropriate. In fact, significant government involvement has gone hand in hand with most of the many successes in municipal networks.

    I would suggest you do some research before discussing further, so you can at least get your facts straight. I recommend you start with:

    Dana Spiegel
    Executive Director

  7. My point is that while the concept of municipal wi-fi is a noble one, it is wasteful to build a separate wide area network when the mobile operators have already invested in building cellular networks, which incidentally are better suited for wide area networks. Governments are not naturally suited to building or managing communication networks. So it should be no surprise that municipal wifi has been a failure in most locales. You can fault phone companies for behaving like phone companies, but at the end of the day they know how to manage billion dollar capital investments and run a viable business.

    A better solution is for government to limit its role to setting policy, and if needed, providing economic incentives for mobile operators to offer voice and data service to people who can’t afford it. This may seem like a tactical solution, and it is. The mobile operators get faster approval for new cell towers, tax credits, etc, and in exchange open their existing networks to support community access. Mobile operators, despite their flaws, are expert at building wide area voice/data networks. This resource is also already built out and available to use now. Basically all the operators need to do is to recognize any unregistered phone as a prepaid device with a limited daily usage quota.

    My hunch is that this will also be a good thing for the mobile operators that embrace a program like this. The cost of supporting these users will be minimal if they are not displacing paying customers (an impact that can be limited via voice/data rationing). Many of these people will upgrade when they can afford it, and will probably stay on the same network. The people who never get out of skid row will at least have access to information and social services.

    This can be complemented with high speed wireless access in public buildings, or by cajoling local businesses and community centers to offer wifi (or whatever becomes the dominant standard a few years from now).

    So yes this is a tactical solution, but I think it’s worth trying in a few communities. If it doesn’t work out, it can be added to the list of failed models for providing community access.

  8. Totoro

    Good analysis. But one big issue you missed concerning the biggest failure of municipal wi-fi-EARTHLINK. They came in to various city deals with huge incentives and promises, and overrode other smaller, more realistic but less profitable bidders. Then they proceeded to screw it up everywhere they went, from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Earthlink helped destroy municipal wi-fi.

  9. Antoinette

    “The majority of us have the means to pay for mobile voice and data service”…that is a HUGE assumption on your part.

    There is the whole One Laptop Per Child movement that is getting cheap laptops distributed but most of those families can’t afford a $50/month mobile broadband access charge. It’s not the cost of a laptop (which can be as cheap as $400), it is monthly charges that rival electricity bills which price people out of internet access.

  10. Mark Murphy

    You are advocating a short-sighted tactical solution to what is a strategic problem for a nation’s citizens. There is some merit in the tactical solution for addressing the tactical issues you mention, but to toss out municipal Internet access (whether WiFi, broadband, or something else) is missing the point.

    Freedom of speech and a free press are enshrined in the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution. These need to extend to the Internet. That concept is under attack, and it’s unclear if the courts will make that extension without additional legislation. That’s a decent-sized chunk of what the Net Neutrality advocates are up in arms about.

    Municipal Internet access is another avenue towards freedom of speech online, by moving some of the blocks to free speech out of the hands of a corporation and into the hands of a municipal government. While there are plenty of unpleasant municipal governments and plenty of delightful corporations, the citizens only have direct control over the former. It is a lot easier to pack a town meeting or “vote the bums out” than it is to convince a millionaire CEO of a billion-dollar company to change policies. And even if you think governments aren’t transparent enough, they’re practically window glass compared even to publicly-traded firms, let alone privately-held companies.

    So, until there are sufficient other safeguards in place to ensure that people can have their soapbox when needed, municipal Internet access will most definitely need a place.

  11. An interesting idea, and one from which I would benefit greatly since that’s almost exactly the service for which I (and most other cellphone users here, I imagine) presently pay $30/month. Of course, to make that free for most of us, any company signing up to that plan will then have to be screwing the three remaining customers to the tune of millions of dollars per day…

    Make it emergency-only (more or less the status quo anyway) or emergency+incoming only, you’re getting close to a genuine lifeline service, as opposed to giving away the average level of service people currently pay for, which is just economic suicide.

    I’m really not convinced that the goal of “free” (i.e. paid for through other things) wifi really is that good, either. Widespread, yes; affordable, yes — but not “free”.

    I’m very much reminded of the dot-com era here: an assumption that giving stuff away free is somehow intrinsically good, coupled with very shaky economics (both the notion that giving away their core service to everyone is even close to viable for any cellphone company, and the false assumption that the US is presently in a recession) which doom the plan from the outset. You can’t just omit economic reality as a detail to be addressed at some unspecified future date!

  12. This sounds like a great idea but it ignores the politics of the moment, which sees the large incumbents (especially telcos) doing all they can to eliminate local government involvement via FCC or Congressional fiat. (Their claim is that local entanglements slow down deployment, investment, etc.)

    Without a champion with political power, how would such an idea even surface? Maybe such conditions can be attached to the reform of the Universal Service Fund, which seems pointed to divert USF fees toward broadband buildouts. But adding “free” lifeline services may not be part of any such deal. Sadly.

  13. Brian,

    While your suggestion regarding a “wireless lifeline” service is a good one, and one that certainly would help a certain part of the population, your statements regarding muni-wireless and the general community wireless initiative are misguided and mis-representative of reality. Your perspective is very narrow and simplistic, and misses many of the more subtle and complex reasons behind muni-wireless and community wireless.

    Now, I would say that all muni-wireless is good, nor would I say that it solves all problems. But there are many issues beyond “economics”, as you so crudely put it. What we’ve found, working in this arena for the past 8 years (yes, community wireless is a maturing field) is that there are 3 A’s: Accessibility, Affordability, and Adoption, all of which play a part in helping the dis-advantaged. And that only part of the story, because community wireless and muni-wireless seek to serve all of a city’s residents, not just its lower income ones.

    Please keep talking about your idea, because it should be explored and discussed, but please be careful about how you stereotype and simplify the issues and solutions. And please don’t assume that your one idea is a complete solution. There are no complete solutions (as I speak about often in public), no single ways to solve our communities’ issues. The problems are multi-faceted, and the solutions must be as well.