Say goodbye to Muni-Fi

MetroFi pulls the plug

In late 2004, the idea of city-wide Wi-Fi networks was electric. These metro-scale Wi-Fi networks would cross the chasm of the digital divide by bringing affordable broadband to low-income parts of major cities, and broadband of any kind to marginal neighborhoods, small towns, and largely rural counties. In mid-2008, the juice has drained out; Thursday, the last of the three major independent city-wide Wi-Fi network builders in the US, MetroFi, said they're pulling the plug. EarthLink, another of the large providers, had already given notice of their exit in August 2007, and filed suit this week to remove the equipment for their flagship Philadelphia network. (Kite, a provider mostly in the Southwest, abandoned their Wi-Fi networks starting in early 2008.)

MetroFi pre-dates the muni-Fi movement, having being founded in the early part of the century when broadband penetration via cable and DSL was still modest in many parts of the U.S., prices were high, and current and future speeds were low and expected low. Wi-Fi could compete admirably against these wired networks, it was thought, and against the weak first wave of third-generation (3G) cellular, on price, speed, and availability.

The incumbents don't stand still, and Wi-Fi, designed for interiors, didn't scale well. While it turns out to be possible to build a large-scale seamless Wi-Fi network that delivers from 1 to 4 Mbps of service outdoors to a laptop, and indoors through a US$100 to $200 signal booster, it also proved true that a provider needed two to three times the number of Wi-Fi nodes across a city to achieve those speeds than was estimated when networks were largely bid out in 2005 and 2006. If you budgeted for 20 to 25 nodes per square mile and need nearly 50 of these multi-thousand-dollar transceivers, it's hard to imagine how that affects the bottom line. USI Wireless, which built Minneapolis's network, appears to be the only firm that got the numbers and engineering to add up for them so far.

Meanwhile, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and Verizon Wireless all moved their 3G networks into the next generation, with speeds they peg at 600 Kbps to 1.4 Mbps for average downstream rates, with higher peak rates. That's what they say, but I just tested a new Sprint USB modem in my office--nestled inside a building--and crossed 2 Mbps for sustained downloads quite easily. True, the 3G services have 5 GB monthly combined upstream and downstream limits (except Sprint), and cost $60 per month with a two-year contract. But they're there, and they seemingly deliver. WiMax and the widely committed Long Term Evolution (LTE) standard for cellular network evolution will bring even higher speeds over the next 2 to 4 years, rivaling today's fast wired broadband.

Wi-Fi was ahead of its time for city-wide deployment: In 2004, it seemed like the best choice because everyone had or could easily get an adapter; no one owned the spectrum; and the cost of broadband was high, unevenly available, and not clear how much better it would get. It's a lot different in 2008, which relegates municipal Wi-Fi to more of a niche market, perhaps, oddly enough, as a good outdoor-only technology for purely municipal purposes.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Glenn Fleishman

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?