How SF and other cities could have created citywide Wi-Fi access: the easy way

Now that all of these networks – EarthLink’s and MetroFi’s – are being sold or shut down, I asked myself last week in San Francisco, over cappuccino at Peet’s Coffee in the Ferry Building, what SF, Philadelphia and other cities could have done. Suddenly the answer came to me. San Francisco could have required cafes to install Wi-Fi networks and also required them to offer Wi-Fi service free of charge to the public. Then, companies such as FON, could have offered these free (or cheap) FON access points. ISPs would have competed for their business or even done very interesting bundled deals that would have resulted in cafes getting cheap broadband service. Users could rate and rank the cafes based on the quality of their broadband service like they rate them today on the quality of their cakes, coffees, muffins, bagels, etc.

If San Francisco had done this two years ago, there would be Wi-Fi in nearly every part of the city without going through the RFP process, the lengthy period of setting up access points, without a provider having to spend millions of dollars on equipment and installation. There’s already a lot of wired broadband (and wireless broadband) in cities like SF. Just give it a push like this and you have citywide Wi-Fi.

UPDATE: See this post from Andy Abramson who writes the excellent blog, VOIPWatch:

Would you like WiFi with your coffee?

Andy says: Give the coffee shop operators an annual credit against their taxes for the cost of a 1.5 meg DSL line and a router. Let’s see, that’s about $300 a year, versus the millions it would cost to build out the system that never came to be.

UPDATE 2: France to require apartments to come wired (with fiber optics)

Comments

  1. Chief Surfsalot says:

    Just about every cafe already has WiFi. They had to do it in order to compete with Starbucks. You are also assuming there are cafes throughout every city. What about rolling coffee carts?

    Also, remember those “inside the building” coverage issues. This concept creates the opposite problem.

    The UK has a requirement for businesses to provide video surveillance access from their business to the government. So similar programs have happened.

    No offense but you’ve posted much better thoughts and concepts before.

  2. There are times when it is very apparent that you live in The Netherlands!

    Is this supposed to be A Modest Proposal?

  3. fonero says:

    Great idea! FON s business modell will work also in US financial crisis. When will we see FON:spots replacing all the others, that will be removed? I hope it will not last very long, cause FON:spots could be deployed all over the cities in only a few weeks. No logistics problem any more, since Dell has taken over distribution in US market. Lets start!! NOW!!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actually there is a far simpler solution to the deployment model that makes financial sense. For example, what if cost of deployment for a lower bandwidth infrastructure was $10K per square mile or even $5K per square mile. What if you eliminated the monthly costs of wired infrastructures (after all, you are a wireless company)? What if you limited your tech supports costs to customers that have paid for company supplied equipment, thus not having to support every clueless user?

    There are actually many, many easy options to making the design actually profitable from day one. There are 2 markets the wired companies aren’t in yet that fit the WiFi and WLEC market pefectly. The mesh networks were designed by network engineers with little RF experience who never talked to finance, who obviously forgot they had a marketing division. There are several ways WiFi should have been deployed and had the “we will pay for the poles and give away 3000 free passwords” or “free” or “we will make money on advertising” mentality not entered the market and stifled real business models, WiFi would have been far more prevalent across the country.

    The real question is can the metropolitan market recover from these high profile failures? Is there a need for WiFi at all? The answer is that there is a great need for this technology. If there is a profit in it, companies with real business plans will be there. We waited on the sidelines until the stupid business models went away and we can now get back to the business of making money by providing a service people will pay for. I just feel bad for all the people who got laid off or who never got jobs and the investors who got cheated by snake oil salesmen because two incredibly incompetent companies stifled the market. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen again.

  5. Actually there is a far simpler solution to the deployment model that makes financial sense. For example, what if cost of deployment for a lower bandwidth infrastructure was $10K per square mile or even $5K per square mile. What if you eliminated the monthly costs of wired infrastructures (after all, you are a wireless company)? What if you limited your tech supports costs to customers that have paid for company supplied equipment, thus not having to support every clueless user?

    There are actually many, many easy options to making the design actually profitable from day one. There are 2 markets the wired companies aren’t in yet that fit the WiFi and WLEC market pefectly. The mesh networks were designed by network engineers with little RF experience who never talked to finance, who obviously forgot they had a marketing division. There are several ways WiFi should have been deployed and had the “we will pay for the poles and give away 3000 free passwords” or “free” or “we will make money on advertising” mentality not entered the market and stifled real business models, WiFi would have been far more prevalent across the country.

    The real question is can the metropolitan market recover from these high profile failures? Is there a need for WiFi at all? The answer is that there is a great need for this technology. If there is a profit in it, companies with real business plans will be there. We waited on the sidelines until the stupid business models went away and we can now get back to the business of making money by providing a service people will pay for. I just feel bad for all the people who got laid off or who never got jobs and the investors who got cheated by snake oil salesmen because two incredibly incompetent companies stifled the market. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen again.

  6. Really…require business to do things. This is not a socialist or communist country, we dont force businesses to do things that are not in the basic general interests of society at large (laws and code). You lose get over and stop with these inane and insane come back ideas. Here is a question, why did you suggest this clairvoyant idea years ago…oh yeah it wouldnt work. You keep pushing this organic model with no basis in law, technical reality, or the realization that city wide wi-fi is a pipe dream in the US. IT WILL NOT WORK! move on and let the real wireless engineers get back to the real business of provide tangible solutions without the cloud of this untenable idea of wi-fi everywhere clouding our customers minds.

  7. agree

  8. Esme Vos says:

    RickT,

    What do you mean goverments don’t force businesses to do things that are not in the basic interest of society? In SF and other US cities, restaurants and cafes have been forced to change their toilets to accommodate people in wheelchairs. They had to put in ramps, change the configuration of toilets, etc. all at great expense to serve . . . how many people? In all the time I’ve been in and out of restaurants and cafes, I have NOT seen a single disabled person use it. This is not required in Europe. So who’s being a socialist? By the way, in Europe, there’s a pretty good (but not perfect) healthcare system. People here don’t go bankrupt if they need a lifesaving operation.

    The US government forces businesses to do far more things than are required in other countries. Example again: in many cities and counties, businesses have to meet “minority-owned” business rules to compete for public bids. Not done in Europe.

  9. Esme Vos says:

    Addendum to my earlier comment: far more people will find free Wi-Fi useful in cafes, than people using the disabled toilets.

    The measures that create safety in the workplace were not willingly adopted by businesspeople who care mostly about squeezing more profit out of their enterprises. Those measures had to be imposed by the government for the benefit of all.

    There are a lot of really stupid regulations imposed by governments everywhere on people. But making cafes offer free Wi-Fi – like requiring toilets and washbasins for use of the customers free of charge – is a good and smart move.

  10. There’s a vast difference between reasonable public accommodation and specific service. Accessible restaurants and washrooms have to do with providing equal access to all–it’s a civil liberties issue.

    Internet access in cafes would be a top-down government meddling decision designed to serve a particular agenda.

    You might try to argue that public Wi-Fi is a public accommodation or a public good, in which case a city should justify the use of public funds rather than a “private taking.”

    Disabled access isn’t a fine, fee, or service. I don’t know what restaurants and cafes you visit, but I see someone in a wheelchair, in a walker, or with another impairment use a restroom nearly every time I go into any cafe, etc. Maybe that’s Seattle; we might be more friendly to impaired folk.

  11. Esme, you think like a communist. Your plan would have failed as well since it hinges on some gov regulation requiring someone to do something. This sort of thinking is not silly, it’s dangerous.

  12. Esme Vos says:

    Well, if you all think I’m a frightening representative of the Rosa Luxemburg fan club, read this:

    http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/04/24/technology/fiber.php

    France to require apartments to come wired

    Bloomberg News
    Thursday, April 24, 2008
    PARIS: The French government said Thursday that it planned to require builders to install fiber-optic cables in new apartment buildings to increase the introduction of fast broadband Internet.

    As part of a proposal to be voted on by Parliament “before the summer,” the government will seek to make fiber-optic cabling a requirement for all construction projects of 25 or more apartments, said Luc Chatel, a government spokesman.

    France Télécom, Neuf Cegetel and Iliad have said that they will invest hundreds of millions of euros in the coming years in fiber-optic networks. Chatel said construction of new fiber-to-the-home networks in France represented an investment of €10 billion, or $15.8 billion, over a 10-year period.

    “The government’s goal is to give very fast broadband a push in the back,” Chatel said at a news conference in Chatillon outside Paris. “There’s an obstacle to access, which is the entrance to the building.”

    The cost of installing optic fiber in apartment buildings would be included in the sales price, Chatel said.

    “By 2010 we want all buildings of more than 25 apartments to be automatically pre-cabled,” Chatel said. “It will be part of the requirements in construction projects.”

    The proposed law should allow all network operators access to buildings, Chatel said. Operators should agree among themselves whether and how to share local neighborhood switching nodes, and the government will leave it to French telecommunications regulator Arcep to deal with competition issues that go beyond building access, Chatel said.

    “The law will envisage the sharing at the entry to the building,” Chatel said.

    Chatel said that the government was considering a new auction of France’s fourth third-generation mobile-phone license.

    The government was also considering the possibility of delaying payment of the €619 million license fee, or alternatively splitting up the license into frequency blocks, Chatel said. The plans were reported by La Tribune on Thursday.

    The French Parliament is set to debate the options in autumn, according to Chatel. French lawmakers passed a bill in December that allowed the government to modify bidding rules.

    In October, the French telecommunications regulator, Arcep, rejected the sole bid for the fourth license by Iliad’s Free because the application did not meet financial conditions. Iliad had asked for delayed payment of the license fee.

    – – – – –

    Yeah!

  13. City-wide WiFi is not a public commodity. Just because France is doing it doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. They sold weapons to Saddam Hussein. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a hot idea.

    As for fiber in new building construction, that doesn’t mean the government is providing a service. It’s a one time cost versus an ongoing management or service expense. That is not a good example.

    If there is a need for a service and a profit can be made, then somebody will provide it. I still believe in the concept since it costs far less to deliver bandwidth in that manner than the cell tower concept. However, I don’t see Verizon or Sprint giving services away to sell advertising. Apparently they were a little smarter than our WiFi company leaders who for some unknown reason thought this concept was a good idea. It’s still a good idea. Get the equipment costs down to something semi-reasonable, find the markets for this type of bandwidth (and there are several), then do it with the idea that it is to be profitable. That would be opposed to either paying a city for rent on the poles or trying to sell millions of dollars of advertising to a few thousand people (that one still kills me). Let’s see what happens over the next year or so and see if some more intelligent models will work.

  14. Esme Vos says:

    Rory,

    In my proposal the government is definitely not providing a service. As I said in the blog post, each cafe would be required to buy DSL or cable service from an existing provider, buy a WiFi access point and provide WiFi to their end users. Most cafes already have some kind of DSL or cable service. Who are the winners in my plan? (a) DSL and cable providers because even those that already have broadband service may upgrade to improve the service (note my suggestion that users rate the quality of broadband); (b) WiFi access point manufacturers like Linksys, Apple, Netgear.

    This is far more economically efficient than having to build out yet another form of infrastructure (towers, outdoor APs) because everything (DSL, cheap APs) already exists.

    Better, the government does not issue any RFPs so they don’t need to hire consultants and there is no politics involved.

  15. I understand. I would be interested in the EULA agreements these cafe’s would be subjected to. In addition, without a standardized infrastructure, quality of service would really stink. Most of them can barely run cash registers if the cash register tells them how much change to give. You expect them to keep a wireless AP functioning?

  16. BTW, your contact section is down. I’m getting a 404 error.

    There is still signficant hope for municipal WiFi if its targeted, priced, and designed properly. I believe we can show that over the next 6 months.

  17. One other question. Why pick on cafe’s? Why not make it mandatory for Gas Stations or Convenience marts? Throw in fast food places and that would truly provide ubiquitous coverage. Wait, why stop there? Why not make it mandatory for cell phone towers to have it also for free? Those guys have the best spots.

    I’m being sarcastic for a reason. Although it’s not government run, it’s government mandated and that’s almost the same thing. You can’t legally make a business provide a service unless you live in Russia.

    I think that smarter designs were waiting in the wings for the spectacular failures that were inevitable (I know ours was). I beleive that although they guys have screwed up the market and wasted 4 years of everybody’s time due to complete ignorance, poor business skills, b.s., a total lack of an RF skills whatsoever, and the failure to grasp the concept of profit, there is still time to recover and put good designs back out there. If I’m wrong, I’ll lose a few thousand dollars. However, my last design cost $60K and generated over 1 million dollars in revenue and a 70% profit over 4 years so I have a little experience with this.

  18. I’m going to need to review my typing a little closer. Please ignore the typos, running to catch a plan.

  19. I like the idea of a tax incentive to provide a public good like free WiFi — some cafes don’t want to deploy WiFi (they feel it leads to customers sitting around all day drinking one cup of coffee); on the other hand, it’s an incredibly cheap way to reward those who have already deployed free wifi and encourage (without necessarily mandating) others to follow suite. But why stop there?

    As long as we’re brainstorming (and those who are red-baiting should keep in mind that we’re pondering interesting ideas and cease the witch hunt), I’d love to see a tax credit to encourage everyone to create free and open connectivity. For cafe’s, I think it could already be argued that wifi is a legitimate business expense; but what about for renters, home owners, etc.? Why not open up Andy’s idea to apply to anyone who wants to create a free and open hotspot?

    Much like the United States has made mortgage interest tax deductible, why not treat the costs of providing an open access point likewise? If nothing else, it would be a remarkably interesting experiment — one that any state (and many local taxing agencies) could try out on its own. Tax law is all about incenting pro-social behaviors — what could be more better than supporting the right to communicate?

  20. Daniel says:

    Esme, a helpful hint…

    When promoting possible options for the US, do not refer to French models.

  21. Esme Vos says:

    Daniel,

    Why not? Is it because French models work and in Paris there’s really cheap fast broadband (50 Mbps symmetrical for 30 EUR per month)? Or maybe I should refer to Japanese and Korean models, as well as Dutch models (very similar to French models)? You afraid the US is falling far behind in broadband precisely because it refuses to acknowledge there are other ways of doing things that actually work?

    What are you afraid of exactly?

    I have not seen a single comment in this long list of comments that actually addresses the content of my post. Everyone just throws these stupid comments at me saying I am a Communist or that I should not refer to French models.

    But no one has the balls or the intelligence to argue with me on the merits.

    I don’t think it matters at all if it’s a French, Chinese, Mongolian or Tongan model. You need to look at the details of each plan and ask yourself, now why it is working there and why can’t it work here?

  22. Esme Vos says:

    May I make a bold suggestion to people commenting on this thread. You guys need to travel.

  23. Glenn Fleishman says:

    I don’t think you’re a communist. But I do think that a mandate to require a very specific form of technology in retail establishments runs counter to the way in which public good is fostered.

    Now, requiring developers to provide specific utility hookups, whether in France or the US or elsewhere, is just good zoning and developmental planning, because it ensures that the means (but not necessarily the method) is available at the cheapest possible time to put a conduit in.

    Many cities in the US have been digging conduit to replace overhead lines because the cost is conserved over relatively short periods of time, or they require all new work in a city to bury all cables in modern conduits.

    All of this is about means, not methods. So that’s where I believe your idea falls down, Esme. Requiring a retail business in a single category to provide access also constrains their ability to freely control the method by which they do business. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach.

    Requiring all developers to provide appropriate wiring for high-speed Internet services adds a cost to the first buyer (and a benefit to the first seller!), even though it’s a cost developers have to foot during the time in which they are building, and subject to market demand by how much they need to eat.

    It’s not an ongoing cost for the developer, it’s a not specific service provider, and it doesn’t constrain or oblige the resident to use a particular service or pay for a subscription. Some buildings require all residents to pay a fee for cable service and Internet service, which is folded into rent, but one can choose not to live in that apartment building, or pay the fee and get your own satellite or Internet service.

    I agree with Rory that the idea of focusing specifically on cafes is a bit odd, because they’re a single narrow category. It’s also a category in which margins for independent owners can be slim, so requiring cafe owners to do this means that independent shops with less foot traffic have less ability to spread their costs, and it’s thus regressive compared to a chain’s ability to amortize across patrons and locations.

  24. Esme et al … The $25m Knight Foundation investment with OneCommunity in Digital Universal Access through the Digital Center of Excellence (http://www.onecommunity.org/solutions/solutions.aspx?id=518) is premised on the assumption that there is indeed a ‘third way’. A third way of approaching the development of consensus around leveraging technology to attend to community priorities and the roll out of a broad macro architecture across broad geographies. Thus far, neither city hall (government directed) nor privileging the private market have produced the digital town square of our common hopes. In a number of the cities where OneCommunity is engaged (and others who are working with similar assumptions about the DNA of the sustainable connected community), the third way is premised on a multi-tenant model of schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, universities, museums, public broadcasters, public safety, and various layers of government co-investing in a portfolio of wire and wireless infrastructure to deliver program and community priorities. The focus on a tiered strategy at the infrastructure layer, a governance model that supports and is informed by networked leadership and economic development, and a funding model based on aggregation of internet services AND program and shared services has produced a viable model here in Northeast Ohio over 5 years. Today, at any given time in the middle of the day more than 3000 wireless users are connected to wi-fi infrastructure in the area I know best which is the mesh and wi-fi deployments in Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland, and Cleveland around University Circle. The model is sustainable and is delivering access in one of America’s poorest cities and a research sandbox for one of the most sophisticated engineering faculty in the land at Case Western Reserve University (and everything in between).

    I would not dismiss your initial suggestion in this thread. However, our experience suggests that there are dozens of cities and various stakeholder in those communities prepared to revisit the messy choreography of the ‘third way’ to enable the roll out of broadband connectivity as an ‘intervention’ strategy in support of broad public policy goals.

  25. Esme, I will address your comments directly. The first thing is that restaurants don’t have to offer restrooms at all. There is no law that says that. The law states that if there is a restroom, it has to be handicap accessible.

    The second issue is the density of these Cafe’s. I will tell you they are few and far between. This idea would literally be technically useless in Phoenix for example.

    In addition, Starbucks already has a paid service option. Are you saying you want to governmnet to break that contract and they have to give it away for free? That seriously smacks of socialism and wouldn’t fly in any court in the land. I can imagine that state Consitutions would get in the way in addition to the Federal Trade Commission. If that wasn’t enough, the ACLU would be all over this. Who polices the quality of service or even if it’s working? As you can see, you are crossing the line in a capitalistic society.

    As I’ve said before, I believe many companies have been eyeing this market that either didn’t have the resources of MetroFi or Eathlink. However ,they have realistic business plans and technical staff capable of bringing this technology to fruition in a profitable and productive manner. I believe it will now flourish.

  26. Hi Esme, this is an interesting thread. Though I agree that there’s been a lot of pointless flames in the comments, there have been some reasonable points as well.

    To address your actual post, there are a number of reasons that this makes very little sense to those of us in the US who have been working on these issues on the ground for many years.

    1. One of the main reasons that municipalities have been interested in wireless is because there are areas that have no broadband service, or only T1, IDSL or ISDN, which are far too costly per bit for what you propose. Furthermore, most large providers explicitly do not allow connection sharing, even businesses sharing with their customers ala coffee shop.

    2. As some other commenters have mentioned, most coffee shops here already Internet service, if it’s available, and offer it freely. In many instances, it probably serves neighbors reasonably well, but this topology is entirely inadequate to cover a city in wireless. It’s a good start, but by no means would result in the sort of coverage that you have been advocating on muniwireless.com. Also, based on the FON technical specs, there is no reason that it would be any better than the routers that most coffee shops are currently using. In short, what you’re proposing is basically what already exists in the United States. Your suggestion does not appear to bring anything novel to the table.

    3. ISPs already compete fairly aggressively on pricing, to the extent they are able. The big issues in the US are the cable monopolies, and the ILEC near-monopolies. Unless there were an enormous regulatory effort to address those issues, you won’t see significant price drops just to serve coffee shops.

    4. The suggestion that a certain business (coffee shops) should be responsible for providing an entirely unrelated service (internet access) is absurd, at least to those of us from the US (and I’m a raging liberal). It really makes no sense and would never, ever, succeed politically. Furthermore, the comparison to the French fiber requirement doesn’t fit. Paris is essentially requiring a new, more advanced infrastructure for new construction. This is akin to building requirements for earthquake or fire safety, where as your suggestion is like demanding that grocery stores hand out free gas.

    As the President of an eight year old Community Networking non-profit, I certainly see value in encouraging every resident and business owner who can afford an internet connection to help out others by offering open wireless access. However, what you’re suggesting, is the same top-down foolishness that resulted in the failing municipal wireless projects across the country.

    Any new communications infrastructure will either need to be fully funded and constructed by private parties–with the attendant costs for end users–or built by the community (either in a grass roots fashion or by the government), which requires community support that you won’t get from vendors and industry advocates lobbying governments with unrealistic promises and hype.

    Michael Weinberg
    President
    Personal Telco Project, Inc.

  27. wifispecialist says:

    FON is also struggling in these days. this startup decapitated their employees 50 % total, shut down their offices in sweden, in benelux and in korea also, remarkable! reduced france and us. fired most so called, “top managers” who obviously had no visions but only burn VC. they dont make profits, dont get any ISPs in month, they are loosers also! so FON isnt any alternate wifi pathway. their CEO only produces constantly hot air, together with his blogging “friends”, who aren´t friends at all. thats all. forget FON!

  28. Glenn Fleishman says:

    I thought of one other relevant point: In St. Cloud, Florida, developers are required to pay an assessment for new construction that adds free Wi-Fi access to that development. That, to me, seems totally in alignment with your goals, Esme. St. Cloud opted for free Wi-Fi, it’s a government program, and developers have to eat or pass along the cost of something that’s directly connected to the ultimate residents of the homes being built.

  29. With any kind of requirement for WiFi, would it require any kind of security? What about lawful interception?

    Are we telling people that all open access points are good, safe, and legal to use?

    What happens when a Cafe gets put on spam blacklists because of a visitor sending spam (or worse)? Would the venue owner be responsible for the activities of the users?

  30. Esme Vos says:

    Even today, one uses a cafe’s Wi-Fi service, whether free or paid, at one’s own risk. It’s your responsibility to figure out how to protect yourself. The venue owner is not responsible for the activities of the users on the Wi-Fi network. The users are responsible for that.

  31. Agreed. But, doesn’t any kind of requirement by the gov. mean that the gov. therefore is somewhat responsible? After all, it wasn’t the venue making a free choice. Sure, users access networks at their own risk. Are they told this? Are they told of the dangers? Isn’t it also the role of the gov. to protect it’s citizens? To me, it is like the gov. making unsafe roads and saying “drive at your own risk, we do not patrol this road”.

  32. Esme, unless the coffee shops work hard to put antennas outside this doesn’t work too well. At the house we were using recently in SF’s sunset, there were several coffee shops with wireless, one only 100 feet away, but the wireless node was inside the coffee shop and I could sometimes see a glimpse of it but never get a connection. So I bought DSL.

    You would need the coffee shops to do high-quality, high antenna installations to get much out of this.