MuniFi, VoIP & Great (UnMet) Expecations

Over the past few weeks, there has been a steady increase in the number of articles questioning the wisdom of municipal WiFi networks and wondering if they really will ever realize their potential. It seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.

With some of the existing MuniFi networks plagued by technological and business model issues, some cities such as Milwaukee, are rethinking their MuniFi plans and taking a more cautious approach, before committing themselves. The trials and tribulations of MuniFi’s biggest commercial champion, Earthlink, haven’t helped matters either.

The San Francisco MuniFi effort is mired in political morass, while Google (GOOG), one of the most visible champions of MuniFi, seems to have shifted its attention on the 700 MHz wireless auctions.

MuniFi, to some extent, has been a victim of putting expectations ahead of reality. MuniFi used to be seen as the panacea of all our broadband problems, giving us the ability to roam free and make VoIP calls while watching the great Meteor shower. Reality turned out to be a bit different.

Andy Abramson laments about the poor performance of Philadelphia and Anaheim networks, especially their ability to handle VoIP traffic.

I have to say that part of the blame is the deployment of a mesh network architecture from Tropos…..Tropos officials admitted to me earlier this week that mesh as it currently sits is not really ready for VoIP until the voice 802.11 R standard comes along.

One of the reasons why MuniFi seems disappointing is because the “selling” of the concept involved offering consumers Internet access. Yet a recent report from Forrester Research shows only a tiny percentage of general consumers using muni wireless. Craig Settles, an independent consultant, points out that consumer is the weak link.

If the MuniFi networks focused on public service, government, first responder and educational services, it would be easier to make a business case. Settles conducted a survey of 318 economic development directors, managers and professionals which takes an in-depth look at the actualand potential impact of muni broadband on economic development. (Download Report, PDF file)

His findings are pretty surprising. For instance, in municipalities where networks are in place, “[B]etween two and three times as many feel wired rather than wireless muni networks will have a direct impact on attracting, retaining and improving businesses.”

We are not ready to write off MuniFi just as yet, just like we didn’t see it as the much vaunted third pipe for consumer broadband. Over next few months, technology will improve, and communities will find a happy medium. And maybe we will use our WiFi mobile phones in the park!