So far, this series of blog posts has focused on what private companies are doing in the unlicensed spectrum space—including startups, cable operators, Google and mobile carriers. In the next few posts I’ll consider what cities and local neighborhoods have done, are doing, and are planning to do with unlicensed spectrum.
As a first step in considering current and future “community WiFi” projects, it’s worth taking a look back at an earlier wave of municipal WiFi networks.
These date back roughly a decade, with one of the most ambitious early projects, in Philadelphia, being announced in April 2005, just a few months before the first iPhone was shipped. The Philly project was one of multiple urban deployments involving Earthlink which, at that time, was grappling with the transition from dial-up to broadband as the dominant form of Internet connectivity. Frustrated with its limited and not-very-profitable access to cable and DSL networks (which weren’t subject to the same network-sharing requirements that applied to dial-up service), Earthlink viewed these muni-WiFi projects as a way to offer Internet access services independent of wholesale arrangements with cable and telco network operators that were not only its main competitors, but increasingly refused to offer Earthlink and other dial-up ISPs access to their networks.
The problem with this effort to use WiFi as a competitive “bypass” technology was that the public-private partnership model embraced by Earthlink, its city partners and similar ventures, was flawed in multiple respects. Though some projects were relatively successful (the largest one probably being the Minneapolis network operated by USI Wireless) Earthlink eventually abandoned its WiFi ambitions after launching several high-profile projects in major U.S. cities. Other players, including MetroFi, which launched several networks in the Bay Area and in Portland, also exited the business around the same time.
Among the problems faced by these early network deployments was that they attempted to offer a service that could compete with wireline broadband services, at least at the low end of the market. But the inability of WiFi signals to reliably penetrate walls made in-home service a serious challenge, especially for the earlier generations of equipment used in these networks.
Another issue was that, ten years ago (as the June 2005 iPhone launch date suggests), there was nothing comparable to today’s nearly insatiable demand for nomadic (but not necessarily ubiquitous) outdoor Internet connectivity. Yes, there were plenty of laptops being lugged around and used in coffee houses, etc., but today’s increasingly universal presence and intensive use of high-performance WiFi-capable smartphones and tablets was, at that time, nothing more than a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ visionary eye.
As discussed in prior posts, today’s dramatically increased demand for nomadic Internet connectivity is spurring a range of efforts by private service providers, including startups, cable operators, Google and cellular providers (as well as restaurants, cafes and other venues providing WiFi hot spots as a customer amenity) to satisfy that demand.
At the same time, some municipalities and neighborhood groups are discovering unmet needs and exploring ways to address them. These efforts will be the focus of the next few posts in this series.