Out of Control Policy Blog

Free WiFi: You Get What You Pay For

The good news is that St. Cloud, Fla., reportedly was the first to launch a free citywide WiFi service. The bad news is service and coverage is so bad, few can connect to it and those who do, can't stay connected for long.

An AP story quoted disappointed St. Cloud resident Joe Lusardi, who, after promised in-home coverage deteriorated, was told that in order to keep receiving "free" wireless service, he had to pay $170 (to the city of course!) for a special wireless bridge. Lusardi and others like him around this Orlando suburb are now realizing they and the town government do not share the same definiton of the word "free."

At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors. Even then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per month Sprint DSL service.

Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the idea of dropping his pay service and using the network
.
"It's just total frustration," Lusardi said. "I'm going to stay with the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work. Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say it's underutilized and they're going to shut it down."

St. Cloud is running headlong into the "commons problem" that free wireless creates–overcrowding of channels–one that I've personally experienced and discussed here last week. What's telling is that service has begun to deteriorate with just 3500 users within 15 square miles. Do some quick math (233 users per square mile; 1 square mile = 640 acres) and this equates slightly more than 1 user per every three acres. If this level of density is causing congestion now, problems will get worse before they get better.


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