The Push for Public Wi-Fi

Last year, St. Cloud, Fla., seemed poised to become an unlikely high-tech beacon. The small suburb of Orlando (population: 28,000) paid $2.6 million to build a wireless network that would blanket its 15 square miles in free, fast Internet access. The network was finally completed in March, but now, St. Cloud is becoming better known for the risks and challenges associated with rushing ahead into the wireless frontier. Complaints about poor connectivity and a few negative press reports have drowned out much of the positive feedback. And last month, city council members were surprised to learn that equipment supplier Hewlett-Packard needed another $500,000 to finish the job. "The infrastructure is there and it's a good idea, but the unfortunate part is that there isn't a wide enough area of coverage yet," says Julio Garcia, owner of Tech Geeks, a local computer firm.

Despite the dark lining at St. Cloud, Wi-Fi fever is gripping the minds and agendas of America's mayors. Philadelphia's mayor John Street is leading the pack; last month, the city council approved his $15 million dollar plan to work with Atlanta-based Internet firm Earthlink to spread a 135-square-mile wireless network over the City of Brotherly Love. San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom recently chose a proposal from Google and Earthlink for a $10 million Wi-Fi network, covering 49 square miles. And that's only the beginning. More than 400 U.S. cities are currently planning municipal wireless networks, according to Free Press, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit media-advocacy group. Supporters see "muni Wi-Fi" as a cheap alternative to DSL and cable modems, and a way to close the digital divide between wealthy Web surfers and citizens still stuck in the dial-up lane. But even advocates admit the technology may not be ready for such large-scale use and caution that expectations for cheap broadband access to the Net may be climbing to unreasonable levels. "We are in new territory. No major metropolitan city has done this yet ,and there are lots of unknowns," says Chris Vein, the city official who is spearheading San Francisco's Wi-Fi project.

The biggest question is how much these networks will cost to build—and who will pay for them. In a few cities, like St. Cloud, taxpayers are footing the bill. But most cities are giving private companies an exclusive contract, and even making some money by leasing space on light poles and traffic signs for the antennas that spread the wireless signal. Earthlink, which is also building networks for Anaheim, Calif., and New Orleans, plans to charge residents about $20 a month for access. That compares favorably to broadband Internet connections from the local cable or telephone service provider, which can cost more than $50 a month.

Other cities, like San Francisco, Annapolis, Md., and Tempe, Ariz., want to offer residents some level of free access; those services will mostly likely have extra ads to make up the cost. That has privacy advocates worried, and in many cities raising objections that are slowing down the approval process. According to the plan in San Francisco, for example, users of the city's basic free service (others can pay for faster speeds) will be forced to use Google search and see Web ads targeted to their location. "Our bottom line is that people must not be forced to pay for it with their privacy," says Nicole Ozer, technology director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which has raised concerns about the project.

An even bigger question is whether such networks will actually work as advertised. Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, operates over what's called the "junk spectrum"—the portion of the radio spectrum unlicensed by the Federal Communications Commission and historically left to such devices such as microwaves, portable phones and ham radios. Wi-Fi emerged in the 1990s as a way to tether laptops and handheld computers to the Net in relatively confined settings, such as the office or home. Today a Wi-Fi antenna or "hotspot" covers only a few hundred feet. muni Wi-Fi will work by connecting hundreds of hotspots together, in what's called a mesh network.

Skeptics abound. "These networks are not designed to have thousands of people connecting to them. I think these cities are setting themselves up for failure," says engineer Tim Pozar, a cofounder of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group. Critics also point out that interference can wreak havoc with large wireless networks. The use of a ham radio or portable phone across the street from a light pole bearing a Wi-Fi antenna could easily ruin another resident's surfing session. Albert Lin, an analyst at American Technology Research in San Francisco, worries that politicians are promoting muni Wi-Fi without considering these practical concerns. "Too much of the muni-Wi-Fi hype just sounds like election-year fodder," he says.

The biggest challenge to deploying citywide wireless networks may be moderating expectations. Many residents of the networks already built in St. Cloud and Tempe, for example, were surprised to learn that indoor access was weak unless they bought a device costing about $100 to amplify the signal. Connectivity on the top floors of high-rises and on the fringes of the coverage area is also problematic—not a message many mayors are broadcasting. "We have to be very careful with setting expectations, because this is not going to work smoothly right out of the box," says Seth Fearey of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a nonprofit which is organizing a multicity Wi-Fi network in the high-tech region.

Donald Berryman, the executive vice president at Earthlink who is spearheading the company's muni Wi-Fi initiatives, says he expects citywide Wi-Fi to work much like mobile phone networks did in their early years. "You had limited service within your city and got charged high roaming fees, and it dropped off a lot. Even today you don't have 100 percent coverage," Berryman says. "This will move more rapidly than that did. We will find some models that work well, and they will have to get fleshed out."

Until that happens, companies like Earthlink, along with America's mayors, must pare back on their promises. But for some citizens, even limited muni Wi-Fi can be a delight. Jennifer Perez, a college student in Philadelphia, can't afford pricey broadband, but she happens to live in one of the three neighborhoods where the city conducted trials of its network last year. Even though the wireless doesn't quite work inside her apartment, whenever she needs to get online, she simply takes her laptop and wanders down to the nearby public park. While that's not exactly convenient, she loves the free access. America's mayors can only hope there will be more satisfied surfers like Perez.

With Jessica Bennett in New York

The Push for Public Wi-Fi | News