What Price Free WiFi?

The news that Wireless Philadelphia has finalized terms with EarthLink pre-empted this post yesterday, but I made an oblique reference to its source when I tossed out a comment about the buzz Philadelphia was getting as a model for municipal wireless. Craig Settles, who dissects the process of the Wireless Philadelphia project in Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, is one of the few municipal wireless consultants who is willing to talk about the hard facts of the task at hand. In a new paper, “What’s the Price of Free?” he has published the replies to a list of questions he sent to various analysts and municipal IT officers about the challenges of municipal WiFi, particularly free WiFi. It makes interesting reading for anyone following the municipal wireless trend. The 13 respondents include Ben Gibson, director of wireless and mobility networking at Cisco Systems; Chuck Haas, CEO and Co-Founder of MetroFi; Kim Crossman, a municipal wireless activist with San Francisco’s Webnetic; Cindy Mullen, CIO of St. Paul, Minn.; and Berge Ayvazian, executive vice president of wireless mobile technologies at the Yankee Group. The 33-page document amounts to a virtual roundtable on the experience municipalities have had with wireless to date. While difficult to boil down to a sound bite, most participants agree that cities begin these projects with unrealistically high expectations, basically about cost of the technology and the willingness of vendors and service provider partners to provide equipment and services for free or at extreme discounts.