May 20, 2006

*St. Cloud, Florida, is probably unfairly receiving close scrutiny on its free, city-wide network paid with municipal funds <,0,4256542.story?coll=orl-news-headlines-osceola>*: The city's mayor explained some months ago that he sees part of the point of this kind of network is keeping the $700+ per year spent on average by broadband users from leaving the state. It's an interesting article. But the network has been perhaps overcovered as the first municipally run free network of this scale; others that offer free service are substantially smaller or offer it only over a downtown or limited area. The latest report suggests $464K above the $2.6m spent to cover the city will be required to achieve close to 100-percent coverage.

Half the new expense was due to a mistake in timing. Developers will start paying a $118.46 per new house fee Dec. 1, but 14 developments weren't factored into the budgeting for the network. Covering these neighborhoods will come out of the city's pocket, although it's possible developers will voluntarily contribute to the effort, since they're passing this along in some form to buyers. (Yes, it's a free network, but that's how "free" can work.) Three neighborhoods were annexed since budgeting happened, and about 20 percent of this new expense covers service for them.

Another chunk, $185k, is for 35 APs--hey, we just found out these Tropos nodes cost $5,000 each to buy and install!--to fill in poorly covered areas, according to this newspaper story. The coverage level is now estimated at 82 percent, and expected to top 90 percent soon, which is the contracted amount. One council member thought the contracted coverage was 100 percent.

Given that 100 percent is impossible for any wireless technology and most wired technologies without excessive expense, it's a bad number to shoot for. That last one percent could cost more than the most expensive 20 percent of the network. (That last 0.001 percent--a crank in an underground concrete bunker--is the killer.) HP, which is building the networks, suggests that anyone with a problem receiving a signal by the end of June should the consider a PepLink bridge or a higher-gain antenna.

St. Cloud isn't unique in having a free service city-wide in a larger town, just for the city paying for it. Some smaller towns offer free Wi-Fi and I would like to guess that between 500 and 1,000 cities and towns now have some public or private limited or unlimited free Wi-Fi in at least one popular place.

But the only other cities that have free service on a metro scale are those operated by MetroFi, which went free several months ago. (That's free with ads; there's a fee-based, no-ads version, too.) MetroFi hasn't received the same kind of scrutiny and critique as St. Cloud because their first cities were unwired without municipal involvement. With the Portland, Ore., contract in hand, MetroFi might expect the same kind of close observation as the St. Cloud network. But given that MetroFi isn't required to disclose finances and runs its own budget, there shouldn't be any cost carping about their deployment in Portland.

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