Should “free” wireless internet be paid for by cities? Google doesn’t think so, which is why the company may be America’s only hope at “free” bandwidth.
But that depends on what your definition of the word “free” is. If city governments pay, taxpayers flip the bill. If Google picks up the tab, “free” means ad-supported. Any way you slice it, innovation isn’t free, and Wi-Fi doesn’t mean what it used to. That seems to be why Google recently announced its Wi-Max ambitions and plan for creating a free wireless mobile network.
We’ve seen this before. Back in 2005, Google claimed it would give free Wi-Fi to San Francisco residents, which it hasn’t — yet. Meanwhile, several U.S. city governments, moving at a snail’s pace, have been talking about “municipal Wi-Fi” for years. Very few have made it happen, and the ones that have are regretting it to various degrees.
As it turns out, what’s good for Spokane, WA, may not be work for Philadelphia, PA.
BusinessWeek‘s Olga Kharif reports on “Why Wi-Fi Networks are Floundering“:
While 415 U.S. cities and counties are now building or planning to build municipal Wi-Fi networks, “deployments are slowing down slightly,” says Esme Vos, founder of consultancy MuniWireless.com. Vos’s tally still marks a nearly 70% jump from mid-2006, when there were 247 muni Wi-Fi projects on tap, but that’s down from the torrid pace of a year earlier, when deployment plans doubled.
Perhaps the clearest hint of trouble ahead is that some of the companies partnering with cities on these projects, including EarthLink (ELNK) and AT&T (T), are having second thoughts about remaining in the municipal Wi-Fi business.
In San Francisco, recent developments have left many observers scratching their heads over whether that city’s Wi-Fi project, announced more than a year ago, will ever get off the ground. In July, the president of the city’s Board of Supervisors revealed that he was seeking to change the terms of the preliminary contracts awarded to EarthLink and Google (GOOG)
Could it be? Is Google the “deadbeat dad” of free wireless internet service?
I wouldn’t count on it. Creating a Wi-Fi grid for a city as hilly and tech-obsessed as San Francisco is way more complicated than partnering with Sprint to retrofit its existing cell phone towers with longer-range Wi-Max equipment. (In the past, they’ve explored other alternatives )
Google is playing it smart by stalling on free Wi-Fi. Perhaps they spoke too soon, but they’re planning their business model from every angle before giving it away for free in the form of Wi-Max.
Maybe the cities should have done the same. Being an early adopter is great, so long as you’re not stuck with outdated technology to support the huddled masses and their $1,000+ laptops.
UPDATE — GigaOm reports that a company called Meraki will give San Francisco free Wi-Fi. It would seem they’ve beat Google to the punch if not for the fact that Google & Sequoia Capital funded Meraki earlier this year.