Cities Back Off Free Wi-Fi Plans


Cities Back Off Free Wi-Fi Plans

Cellular 3G and 4G networks and wireless spectrum are expanding. Free municipal Wi-Fi -- not so much.

Just four years after Uncle Sam called for widespread free municipal wireless service, the dream of public Wi-Fi networks is over -- at least for now -- in many U.S. cities.

Although Minneapolis and other cities have such systems in place, many other highly touted projects, including ones in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, have been abandoned. The Federal Communications Commission, which had promoted city Wi-Fi networks, barely mentions them anymore as a way to bring broadband Internet access to more Americans.

Such networks have been done in by technology and cost problems as well as by FCC rules that limit their effectiveness.

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Wi-Fi sends information by radio waves that attenuate -- or dampen -- over distance. Planners originally believed that 20 antenna towers per square mile would be sufficient to provide good Wi-Fi coverage, but in reality, with current technology, it takes 50 or more towers to do the trick. And FCC rules limit the spectrum that can be used for city Wi-Fi to the 2.4 and 5 megahertz bands, which carry other traffic, causing interference. Wi-Fi antennas are also restricted to 1 watt of power, further limiting the distances that signals can travel.


However, new FCC rules will open up more spectrum to wireless networks -- in the so-called white spaces between television channels -- and a new standard for television antennas may revive interest in municipal Wi-Fi in the next few years. But by then, they would face stiff competition for user attention from rapidly expanding cellular 3G and 4G networks.

Municipal Wi-Fi plans were driven by a desire to overcome the digital divide, which separates people who have such access from those who don’t. But a new study from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency in the Department of Commerce that advises the president on telecommunications and information policies, notes that 64% of households now have the broadband connections at home -- up from just 9% in 2001.