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Municipal Wi-Fi Needs a Redefined Model

More than 400 cities in the United States have planned municipal Wi-Fi networks, but after a honeymoon period there is a widespread perception -- fueled by media reports of high-profile problems -- that the concept is fundamentally flawed.

According to a new study from ABI Research, however, there is a disconnect between that media-driven gloom and the reality on the ground. Municipal Wi-Fi can be a success, if its goals and business models are redefined.

According to vice president and research director Stan Schatt, "We need to change our expectations of what a municipal Wi-Fi network is actually good for, from free Internet access for all, to a narrower, higher value role centering on public safety and municipal workers."

The free consumer broadband Internet model, which helped sell the idea to the municipalities, is not sustainable in the long-term, says Schatt, but these networks are perfect for enhancing municipal worker's productivity and first-responder's emergency communications.

Enter PSIC, the Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant program. On September 30, the U.S. Federal Government allocated $1 billion to fund up to 80 percent of interoperable communications systems for emergency services.

"Whether that entire billion gets funneled into the equipment that's used for municipal Wi-Fi is questionable," says Schatt, "but we believe a good part of it will."

To negotiate this shift in priorities, municipal governments will have to back-pedal from the promises they made to voters about free universal Internet access and instead focus on improving public safety and efficiency. For Digital Inclusion, pre-paid Wi-Fi Internet access cards can still be distributed by social services agencies.

Under a revised business model, the municipality would become a paying anchor tenant and the provider would enable connectivity for mobile municipal employees and first-responders. Services would also include public space video surveillance for security or traffic monitoring.

Where the municipality sees monetary value in those services, the model succeeds. Meanwhile the service provider is free to sell additional services to consumers for a modest fee, stimulating local competition.

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