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Municipal Wi-Fi thrives – on a small scale

Big-city wireless Internet plans took a hit this summer, but places like Owensboro, Ky., and Rio Rancho, N.M., put networks in place.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2007



Brookline, Mass.

The dream that free wireless Internet hubs would blanket downtowns across the country abruptly faded for several cities this summer. In San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and St. Louis, plans that were supposed to make Wi-Fi access as cheap and ubiquitous as tap water seemingly all fell apart at the same time.

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With the collapse of several major metropolitan projects, analyst forecasts for municipal Wi-Fi turned dark. Business models were unproven. Eager hype fizzled to dismissive pessimism.

But not everywhere.

While big-city Wi-Fi wilts, hundreds of smaller communities have fostered thriving networks. These success stories often take place in cities and counties few have ever heard of – Owensboro, Ky.; Rio Rancho, N.M.; Kutztown, Pa. Their town borders don't extend very far, their populations are relatively small, and their main streets may be unglamorous. But in many ways, that's how they pulled off what most metropolises have not.

"Many of the cities that are building successful Wi-Fi networks are those that never had the luxury of dreaming that Earthlink or some other major company would drive by and offer them a great deal," says Esme Vos, founder of the industry's news and consultancy website MuniWireless.com. It was this do-it-ourselves attitude, she says, that shepherded many of the successes.

This summer was hard on urban Wi-Fi. Exhibit A: the extreme corporate shake-up at Earthlink, one of the biggest names in municipal wireless. In the same few days, the Atlanta-based Internet provider abandoned its much-heralded proposal to build San Francisco's wireless network, faced a $5 million fine from Houston for missing a contractual deadline in rolling out that city's network, and announced it would shed some 900 jobs – half of its staff – including the company's head of municipal Wi-Fi.

In St. Louis, a $12 million plan stalled out this summer when AT&T and the city couldn't untangle an electricity snarl. Engineers planned to hang the Wi-Fi hubs from street lamps and they had hoped to use the bank switches that power the light poles to also power the routers. The problem: The lamp systems shut off during the day. That plan is on hold indefinitely.

With these signs of the industry buckling, Chicago officials backed off their plans to install a city network after failing to reach an agreement with either of the competing wireless providers.

But as these cities floundered, analysts swung from being too exuberant about Wi-Fi to being too dismissive, says Joanne Hovis, president of the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation, a public-interest consulting firm in Columbia, Md.

"The hype cycle was destructive because it made cities think they could get more than was really feasible," she says. But, "it's more destructive to be thinking the way we are now – that 'Oh, these networks can never be built.' "

Just ask St. Cloud, Fla. This central Florida community of 28,000 residents commissioned and now owns a truly citywide Wi-Fi network at no additional cost to residents. For more than a year, it has been the only town in the country able to offer 100 percent service availability, according to a study released earlier this year by the independent wireless testing company Novarum. The survey dubbed St. Cloud's $3 million network the best metro Wi-Fi in North America – ahead of Mountain View, Calif., where locally grown Internet giant Google provides free wireless.

How to find a Wi-Fi hot spot near you

Coffee shops are often a good bet, but countless other businesses and towns also offer wireless Internet – some for free, some for a daily or monthly fee. To locate hubs in your area, check some of the many online wireless directories. Here are three websites to get you started:

anchorfree.com – Focusing on free Wi-Fi hot spots, the website's search engine lists more than 12,000 wireless hubs in the United States alone. The advertising company that runs the directory also offers a free iPod application that lets you take the list on the go.

jiwire.com – The site boasts a massive catalog of 150,000 international Wi-Fi zones. JiWire, another ad company, provides the list on its website as a cellphone program or as an extension for an Internet browser.

rv.net – Even campgrounds offer Wi-Fi nowadays. If you need to check e-mail while on the road, or appease your kids during a long trip, check out RV.net's 31-page directory of parks with wireless internet at: www.rv.net/campgrounds/cgphonenetaccess.pdf

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