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Does Muni Wireless Really Work At All?

Steven Titch
June 28, 2006, 11:25am

After being accused of disseminating "disinformation" time and again whenever I write about the mounting number of municipal broadband failures, it is not without some satisfaction that I can report that city officials in Chaska, Minn., have been yanking our chain about the "success" of their municipal wireless system for the past 18 months. It turns out Chaska, which has been repeatedly (and exclusively) upheld as the shining example of a successful muni wireless operation, has been a disaster. Its problems, catalogued by TechDirt, haven't been much different from other cities. Much of it dealt with engineering the high-frequency, low power radio coverage that WiFi uses, a day-to-day task that gives 25-year industry veterans grey hairs, yet that every city seems to believe can be done by an intern with a second-hand oscilloscope. Earlier this year Chaska disclosed that it had gone overbudget by $300,000–some 50 percent–optimizing its system. Although they made the problems sound minor, in truth, most of the residents were unable to access the system until a few weeks ago--and TechDirt remains skeptical of that claim. Throughout all this Chaska misled everyone, never admitting its sizable problems. I recall speaking the North Cable Association Conference in Minneapolis, I raised all the issues about muni wireless that should concern cities, while the Chaska city official who shared the panel assured the audience that, in his case, muni wireless was a financial and popular success. Every time I have addressed the boondoggle that is muni wireless, I hear Chaska, Chaska, Chaka, to the point where I was being forced to concede it as an example of a muni system that worked. Well no more. To date, we are hard-pressed to find any city that has successfully pulled off municipal broadband in any form. They may get systems up, but they are poor in quality, coverage and financial return. Even the press senses blood in the water. Uncritical, saccharine-laced stories about how muni broadband was bringing "hope" to rural America have given way to sober pieces like Newsweek's Wi-Fi Fever . I have been following this issue closely for some two years. From what I've seen I can confidently predict that cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland and others that have struck deals with private partners are not going to get anything near the networks they expect. Right now, free market competitors show every sign of getting far wider and higher quality broadband coverage before any muni-sponsored effort cuts over. By the time these large private-partnerships come on-line–if ever–most of the low-end market will have choices, either from other commercial players or from nonprofits. EarthLink, MetroFi and Google will simply shrug their shoulders and stick to serving high-revenue areas, while enjoying all the right-of-way discounts and city contract revenues they negotiated for themselves. Politicians who touted these sweetheart deals will decide the less said about them the better. It's time for cities to read the headlines and wise up. Muni broadband doesn't work and never will. Stick a fork in this debate. It's done.


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