Commentary: How About Truly Public Municipal Wireless

Our guest commentary of the week comes from James Jones, a consultant in San Francisco, who argues that there are many reasons for cities to explore setting up municipally-owned, not-for-profit public networks and to provide free Internet access.

San Francisco’s budget analyst estimates that a ubiquitous San Francisco Wi-Fi network could be built and operated for one year for $6-$10 million. Ongoing maintenance and operations might cost $2 million a year, and equipment/technology replacement might add another $1.5 million annually. That’s less than $30 per household one time ($10,000,000/360,000 households) and less than $10 per year per household for ongoing operations, maintenance and technology upgrades ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ for an outdoor solution that could equally serve all citizens and guests all year much better than dial-up services! That’s an incredibly cheap and efficient use of public Wi-Fi spectrum, and it overestimates the costs and does not count the benefits of a truly public network.

A serious flaw in many cities’ decision-making process is they assume a subscription model is the only valuable and viable one. However, it’s not necessarily always true the best way to finance a network is to have individual subscribers buy service, preferably with somebody getting a shot at getting rich on the deal as a traditional service provider. (Even the Budget Analyst’s report above assumes a subscription services model, thereby overestimating the costs for a truly public network.)

A subscription service model adds significant costs to an overall solution from the perspective of society. It requires the creating and managing systems and organizations to handle customer relationships. It costs a lot of money to install and maintain billing and collections, track and enforce service level agreements (SLAs), market and sell services, manage and provide benefits for all the additional personnel required for these functions.

Multiple levels of service and paid subscription services degrade network performance. Technical solutions have to be layered onto the network to segment traffic, rate limit users according to their paid tier of service, monitor SLA performance. A wholesale model requires staff to negotiate and manage wholesale customer relationships, interconnections with wholesale customer service provider networks, systems integration between the network provider and its wholesale customers, wholesale billing, collections, accounting, audit, SLA enforcement.

All of those additional elements add unnecessary complexity and cost to the overall network and much of the additional money taken from subscribers for those purposes goes elsewhere, to corporate operations, staff and investors elsewhere, rather than staying in a municipality for the benefit of the local economy. From the perspective of society, profit is also an unnecessary expense with a subscription-services solution, and that money also typically leaves and does not benefit the local economy.

Finally, subscription service models risk business failure and closure, by not achieving required levels of paid subscriptions to satisfy investors and managers, and they create conflicts between public service and profit maximization goals.

Free is free! Let’s just put Wi-Fi networks out there as an amenity, a public service to citizens and guests on a best efforts basis, without rate limiting anybody. Let users share bandwidth on the network at any given time. If there are few users of the network in a given location, a user will get better performance than with a rate-limited subscription service. If there are lots of users in a given location, performance is shared between those users. With no performance guarantees and appropriate communications and setting of expectations, that’s OK. It makes the network simpler and less expensive.

There are individual citizens in most communities who could just write checks for a muni Wi-Fi network and its operations. Corporate citizens or government certainly could. Give citizens or philanthropists an opportunity to say whether they are willing to pay for the solution, via general funds, property assessments, bond financing, gifts or grants. A truly ubiquitous and equitable solution would cost less than 1% of a typical municipal budget. Offer the service free as an amenity to all citizens and guests as a digital inclusion strategy. The stimulus to the economy should more than make up for the costs. A city would be a more appealing tourist, convention and business location, attracting new hotel, convention and service revenue. Telecommuting and mobile work would be enabled, reducing traffic and traffic related expenses and inefficiencies, benefiting the economy.

An appropriate model for such a free network is the public library, or public TV or radio. Libraries give citizens the ability to access books, magazines and information, even if they cannot afford to purchase them individually. They allow users to share costs, rather than inefficiently each having to purchase everything and then leaving those assets dormant or discarded after they’ve been used, rather than reusing them. Libraries don’t put bookstores out of business any more than a free Wi-Fi network would put commercial network service providers out of business. The message to industry is “We welcome you to come provide advanced communications services in our city. However, to be commercially successful, the services should be better than what our citizens already get for free.”

As a true public-interest, public network, a city would not have to collect, disseminate, sell or use any personally identifiable data about any individual network user for any purpose, unless required by law. There should be at least one network alternative in a city that adamantly supports a user’s right to privacy. A public, not-for-profit network operator would have no perverse motivations to collect and sell such information for profit or to conceal user data collection and dissemination practices from the public.

Similarly, everyone should have at least one network alternative that is not subject to abuse by advertisement. Many citizens would simply prefer not to have to be exposed to unwanted ads. Some citizens and guests view advertisement as a form of pollution, not unlike garbage strewn on streets. Advertisement is offensive to some and is avoidable. A Wi-Fi network option is cheap. Why pervert it? A public network should remain free of profit motivated ads, just like our libraries and schools.

The municipal wireless movement has an opportunity to significantly raise the bar for electronic communications solutions. With a true public network, modeled after public libraries, public television or radio, we can provide everyone, everywhere in a municipality, at all times, network connectivity many times better than dial-up, at a fraction of the cost of dial-up, that adds no new abuse of personal information or intrusive ads. We can radically reduce digital divides and equitably improve economic opportunity for all. We can reduce automobile traffic and improve the delivery of public services. All in the spirit this country was founded on ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ efficient, equal respect and opportunity for all.

When we can do that for everyone for less than $25 one time and $10 a year each, why would we settle for anything less?

By James Jones

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James Jones is an MBA who has been a telecom optimization consultant to San Francisco Bay Area enterprises, a financial planning manager for Pacific Bell wire-line operations, an SBC custom contract manager, a key contributor to Metro Ethernet pioneer Yipes, and a consultant who helped City College of San Francisco partner with the City of San Francisco to expand public benefit fiber networks. These comments are excerpts from his open letter regarding San Francisco’s muni Wi-Fi efforts, which can be viewed here. Feel free also to check out his cover story on City College of San Francisco in the February 2007 issue of Communications News.


  1. Michael Keegan says

    I have been syaing the same thing for several years now and still have trouble getting support from my fellow elected councilpersons. Most focus on the upfront costs, cannot see the real property enhancement and are afaid to take any risks. I will forward your comment to them in hopes of enlightenment. Keep up the good writing.

    Michael Keegan
    Mayor ProTem
    Hermosa Beach, CA

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. In my humble opinion, in the modern Internet era service centers like municipalities have to offer open and free-to-use wireless broadband Internet access to remain competitive and increase their productivity.

    Please see the panOULU network ( for a concrete example of a truly open municipal wireless network in the City of Oulu in northern Finland. You do not need any user account nor pay anything to use the network. There are no limitations on the use of network (excluding blocking of outgoing TCP port 25 (SMTP), which is required by law in Finland).

    The network is offered by the panOULU consortium as a public-private partnership, where City of Oulu is a key player. The network is effectively pooled from the “visitor networks” provided by the public sector (City of Oulu, University of Oulu, Oulu Polytechnic, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland) and the panOULU subscriptions offered by three telcos. By purchasing a panOULU subscription any organization can offer open and free-to-use panOULU hotspot in its premises.

    The network currently totals about 715 AP’s (WiFi, IEEE 802.11a/b/g). The AP’s are in the same layer 2 network, which in turn ensures “seamless” mobility. Hence, from the user’s point of view, the AP’s appear as one large uniform network. About 70 AP’s provide currently outdoor coverage in selected areas. 15 AP’s are “mobile” in panOULU buses, a mobile library and a ferry.

    The primary usage of the panOULU network is to provide open and free wireless broadband Internet access to the general public. In February 2007, 6091 devices used the network, totaling 138278 sessions and 4.5 million online minutes. Every month 1000-2500 devices are visitors, stopping by in Oulu and using the network to their benefit. The number of multi-mode devices (with cellular and WLAN radios) using the network has been growing rapidly. The secondary usage of the panOULU network is to serve as R&D resource – please click to panOULU website for examples.

    As of now, about 250 of the 715 AP’s are provided by City of Oulu. They cover a large number of public service points of City of Oulu such as libraries, schools, health stations, city hospital, sports facilities, city theatre, city hall, youth and culture center, elderly centers, etc. The 2.4 million euro COMPETENCE Oulu 400 program (, granted by the city council, will among other things expand the city’s zone in panOULU network by additional 175 AP’s by the end of year 2007. By then we’re very close to the vision that panOULU network is available in almost all public service points provided by City of Oulu. The expansion will include 60 Strix systems OWS 2400 AP’s for deploying the first large outdoor WiFi mesh network in Finland.