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Where’s All the Free Wi-Fi We Were Promised?

Municipal WiFi was supposed to bridge the digital divide. Here’s why it failed.

Municipal WiFi was the free, ubiquitous mesh of wireless internet access that was supposed to carpet bomb the digital divide back to the stone age.

So what happened? Eric Fraser, author of the superlative new guide to what went wrong with the dream of Municipal WiFi, A Postmortem Look at Citywide WiFi, has the answer. The short version is, no technology happens in a vacuum, and where the laws of the land abut the laws of nature, physics will carve your best-laid plans into a heap of sundered limbs every time.

Case in point: the 2010 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan, Connecting America, doesn’t even mention municipal WiFi. Contrast that with the Federal Trade Commission’s 2006 report, Municipal Provision of Wireless Internet, “which listed WiFi first in its list of major technologies used to provide citywide wireless internet access,” Fraser notes.

That was before cities realized that the problems with municipal WiFi, which are a natural consequence of economic realities dictated by physical limits that should have been apparent from the parameters in which WiFi is forced to operate by the FCC’s 1985 rule-making dictating the nature of the power envelope and spectrum range for this and other unlicensed wireless technologies.

In other words, the failure of municipal WiFi is an object lesson in the dangers of techno-utopianism. It’s a failure of intuition - the sort of mistake we make when we want something to be right.

Listen as Fraser leads us down the same primrose path that, like that guy who sold Springfield a monorail, early advocates of municipal WiFi enticed more than 100 cities and towns to tread:

Public WiFi was supposed to be a “wireless fantasy land.” Independent market research firms, expressly claiming to be free of “a simple ‘me-too’ mentality,” predicted that citywide WiFi would generate value for “citizens, government, and local businesses.”

In the race to get broadband to America’s millions of households, the idea was that using WiFi to get connections “the last mile” to the home would be cheaper than physically hooking them up. It’s not completely illogical - witness the problems Verizon has had in getting high speed fiber optic connections to the home.

But WiFi has a number of problems, and none of them are due to the technology itself which, by now, is quite mature. The real problems started in 1985 - that’s when the FCC issued rules that made certain parts of the wireless spectrum, namely 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz, available for use by unlicensed wireless transmitters.

The first problem is that because this spectrum is free for anyone to use, everyone does use it. That includes cordless phones, baby monitors, you name it. Worse, this high frequency portion of the spectrum is absorbed by just about everything: trees, walls, cars, so it can’t travel very far.

In addition, the FCC guaranteed that WiFi would forever be unsuitable for wide area use by limiting the strength of any transmitter to 1 measly watt. (For perspective, that’s about the same amount of power used by an old-school christmas light.)

As a result, anything with the characteristics of WiFi, deployed in the real world, which is full of obstacles that absorb, reflect, diffract and scatter a signal already attenuated by interference from countless other wireless devices, would require a very dense installation.

The day proponents of municipal WiFi heard from customers that they could only get signal from the WiFi base station when they were sitting next to the one room in their house with a window facing the pole with the transmitter - a common occurrence in those days - they should have realized that without widespread indoor deployment, which would have been impossibly expensive, municipal WiFi would be unworkable.

They should have given up on their Quixotic quest to turn internet access into a utility on par with water and electricity. (As a regional monopoly, you could argue that today’s private-enterprise alternatives, DSL and cable internet, aren’t so different from the regulated monopolies that deliver these basic services, but that’s another story.)

Even private enterprise couldn’t turn WiFi, a technology that, unlike 3G and 4G cell networks, is fundamentally unsuited to covering large areas, into a workable solution. Witness the fate of Meraki, which once promised to bring wireless to the next billion people without Internet access, but is now a provider of enterprise WLAN hardware to businesses with the cash for indoor deployment of their gear.

This is not to say that municipal WiFi will forever be impossible. Some day, as airspace is freed up at lower end of the spectrum, now occupied by television and radio transmissions, WiFi operating at wavelengths long enough to penetrate obstacles and cover wide areas might be possible.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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