A Municipal Wi-Fi Wakeup Call?

NYC Plans a Hot Spot Borough Bonanza

I Wi-Fi NYCA decade ago municipal Wi-Fi was all the rage. Many big- and small-city planners across the globe were preparing to turn their towns into connectivity sanctuaries. Internet access would flow like clean water as a sort of digital oxygen democratising the information age. It was a commendable ambition but an uncomfortable thought for mobile network operators that had invested billions in 3G spectrum and infrastructure. It seemed plausible that cellular base stations could be upstaged by Wi-Fi routers offering free or low-cost access.

Those were optimistic times, but in the end only a fraction of the Wi-Fi plans reached fruition, often covering only a few lucky neighbourhoods rather than blanketing wide areas of the cities. Municipalities and their partners often underestimated the complexities and overestimated the benefits. In 2007 CCS Insight predicted potential problems with such Wi-Fi coverage plans, including the clarity of financing and charging. (See BT partners with FON to create community Wi-Fi network extending coverage footprint). We believe that this turned out to be the case in the majority of planned implementations.

So, given the rather poor track record of municipal Wi-Fi projects, it’s easy to be cynical when hearing about New York City’s plan to transform up to 10,000 public phone booths into free Wi-Fi hot spot zones complete with charging stations and a touch-screen device for making free phone calls within the US. The massive Wi-Fi network, called LinkNYC, will be managed by a consortium of companies that includes Qualcomm and media companies, which will be collecting advertising revenue that they will split with the city. Not only does the plan call for creating the largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world at no cost to taxpayers, but it is expected to bring in revenue. The build-out is expected to begin next year.

If the concept of a profit-generating, free wireless network sounds naively optimistic, it’s worth pointing out that it’s different this time. The hardware goes further and does more, and there are a lot more devices and services around to enjoy the free ride. Residents and tourists could get used to it, as could companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Uber. These service providers know about zero-rating, or subsidised data, which enables free access to their sites. Municipal Wi-Fi is a theory they should support in reality.

Other major cities will be monitoring New York’s project for success. While there are certainly a few working municipal Wi-Fi networks up and running around the world, the planned scale of LinkNYC is impressive. Even Google had problems maintaining an outsourced network in the high-tech area of Mountain View. Could things work better in a more urban environment? A big, rough city like New York can rip the heart — and hardware — out of noble plans.

Whether LinkNYC succeeds or not, this does act as a reminder of the growing influence of Wi-Fi as either a complement or a replacement for cellular access. Many clever mobile device users are able to beg, borrow or steal their way to respectable patched connectivity. Piecing together a wireless network from table scraps isn’t an ideal scenario, but for some, it’s good enough. And it’s getting better. Stores like Tesco in the UK are working on improving their free and open Wi-Fi access as they see benefits to shopping behaviour. From mega hardware stores to corner haircare salons, free connectivity is on the rise, and on the house.

In the US, cable providers that have no cellular spectrum to offer a complete multiplay package are giving away Wi-Fi access to their subscribers, building out a respectable network of hot spots. For now, it’s a bit like spotty cellular coverage. In the Northeast, Cablevision claims to have more than 100,000 Wi-Fi hot spots installed with the goal of reaching 1 million within a few years by using residential routers as part of the network. Comcast is using a similar strategy to reach 8 million access points. In some areas of the US, cellular is becoming a complementary access method used for filling in the gaps. The market is flipping.

Disruptions rarely come from shiny new technologies. Rather, it usually takes years for the dust to settle. The various hot spot activity in some Western markets is certainly not a technology disruption; it’s an implementation disruption. Mobile network operators could certainly see this as a way to provide some bandwidth relief and some, such as AT&T, are. Content is now data-intensive, and getting richer and heavier and taxing the 4G networks. Nobody quite knows what 5G services will look like, but a new generation of users could soon get a taste of 5G by looking out the window. It’s not the ideal municipal Wi-Fi, but it’s getting closer to home.