Out of Control Policy Blog

Drowned-out WiFi

Not too long ago, I took my WiFi-enabled iPaq to Sugar Land (Tex.) Town Square. Given the Road to Paradise nature of this post-modern Houston exurb where I live, Town Square is a planned mixed-use development incorporating the new Sugar Land City Hall building, a Marriott Hotel, a smattering of condos, two dozen or so retail shops, pubs, a wine bar and the requisite Starbucks. In testimony to the changing nature of our communities, Town Square lies adjacent to the First Colony mega-mall and some three miles distant from the old Imperial Sugar refinery, around which the city was originally built.

Town Square is a popular hangout day and night. Sometime last year, the city government began free WiFi service. Best described as an amenity, coverage is pretty much limited to the pedestrian plaza around City Hall, but it certainly qualifies as an example of low-key "municipal wireless" that has been floated elsewhere.

So, in the interest of field research, I drove over, parked and ambled over to a bench and turned on my iPaq.

My handheld immediately detected six signals, defaulting to the hotspot at Starbucks, about 100 yards away. I also picked up a Marriott hot spot as well as a number of unprotected home networks from the nearby condos. My iPaq also detected the Sugar Land city's WiFi service set identifier (SSID), but its signal strength was low and when I manually selected it, the connection was spotty and data speed slow. It was utterly useless.

I'll grant that this is anecdotal, but is still raises an issue with public WiFi that I rarely see discussed by either side – that in high traffic areas municipal hotspots will overlap with numerous other free and for-pay hotspots. Laptops and handhelds may not always default to the city service. And even when a user can choose to connect, it may not be the best signal, even among the free connections.

This could create a problem for companies like EarthLink and U.S. Internet, which are winning municipal franchises and cozy right-of-way deals in return for commitments to cover entire cities. In Philadelphia, there EarthLink will be one just one more WiFi service available downtown and other high traffic areas such as airports, stadiums and shopping malls. The amount of traffic the EarthLink network (or any muni system) handles will depend on how often, in areas of multiple hotspots, roaming laptops and handhelds default to it, or make user selection a desirable alternative.

This is the essential difference between municipal WiFi "franchises" and other city franchises. EarthLink and U.S. Internet will have for-pay services but they still won't have a monopoly. Yet they will still be committed to citywide coverage. The revenues and traffic they can capture in busy areas supposedly will fund the hotspots in outlying residential low-traffic areas, where they may indeed be the only provider. This presents a technical and marketing challenge. At least, the commercial players have the budgets.

One wonders further about cities that attempt WiFi themselves. In Sugar Land, the investment was probably not that high, but when the service is so poor compared to competing networks--free and paid--why spend the money at all? Municipal proponents were flummoxed when the city of Orlando, Fla., closed down its public WiFi system last year because low traffic loads did not justify the expense. The system was downtown in a city that serves as popular business and tourist destination. The service was free. What happened? Perhaps, like in Sugar Land Town Square, its signal was literally drowned out by other hotspots.


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