Is Muni Wireless Losing Its Political Luster?

In one of the more balanced articles I’ve come across about municipal wireless, Bryan Zandberg, reporter for the on-line Canadian publication The Tyee, looks at how 2007 may become the year of reckoning for many municipal wireless systems. He turns to wireless consultant Craig Settles, who, while not completely anti-muni, has been critical of the tendency of city administrators to overpromise, particularly when in comes to in-building coverage and free service. “This is the year where a lot of things are going to come to fruition,” said Settles in an interview with The Tyee. “A lot of theories are going to be proved out and a number of folks are going to be a little disappointed.” Moreover, by the end of 2007, Settles tells Zandberg, setting up networks for the general public will be “the weakest pillar” when governments make their case for going wireless. “I’m still not convinced that the idea of free Wi-Fi around the city is going to fly, in this city or in any city.” Zandberg’s angle was ongoing delays in Vancouver, which announced it would build a city wireless network last year. The city still has not finalized on a plan. Meanwhile, the novelty of municipal wireless is wearing off. Recall that one of the drivers of these plans has been political vanity: big city mayors looking to stamp their towns with the “first-to-be-all-wireless” cachet. Trouble is, how trendy and pioneering can you be when places like Fredericton, New Brunswick, not to mention Addison, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and already have limited WiFi systems covering downtown areas and public parks?

But in an interview last week, [Vancouver City Councilor Peter] Ladner admitted it’s getting a little late in the game to come out looking like a world leader. Along with many high-tech business leaders in Vancouver’s new media sector, he now just wants to avoid the embarrassment of failing to keep up with the Joneses. “Fredericton got a return from the branding of being the first [to do it] and being a very happening town. But now that everybody’s doing it, it doesn’t really pay back that much.”

And in politics, that’s a killer.