The Wireless World Widens
For years, I've had free WiFi on my street--courtesy of neighbors I know only as "Default," "Linksys" and "NETGEAR." Home wireless networks unintentionally left open are not too reliable or fast, but they can be a decent backup if your own Internet connection goes down.
(I feel guilty about not returning the favor with my own network and wish there were a simple way to configure it for backup use by my neighbors--limited bandwidth, Web and e-mail use only, no peer-to-peer file sharing. Any ideas?)
But what if you could pay $20 a month for wireless that works everywhere in your city or county? That's the promise of municipal wireless, the subject of today's column, chat and podcast (listen, subscribe, iTunes).
I'm usually a skeptic when I hear promises of "fast, cheap Internet access in our time," but I think muni WiFi, as it's called, makes sense. If it didn't, incumbent telecom carriers like Verizon and AT&T wouldn't have worked so hard to try to kill it. It also has ample precedent: Five years ago, the first commercial WiFi networks were already open for business around the Washington area. These were set up not by any name-brand telecom firms, but by enterprising geeks in the far suburbs who were tired of waiting for cable or DSL to arrive, willing to pay to have a T1 line run to their house and persuasive enough to get their neighbors to chip in for the cost of that T1.
Now, the idea has grown to a city-wide scale. Residents of Philadelphia and New Orleans can already use municipal WiFi (I'd love to hear from folks in Philly and N.O. on how it's working out), and some people around D.C. won't have long to wait. The city of Alexandria has a municipal WiFi network on the way; the company that will run the service, EarthLink, also has a page up with more info. Arlington County, meanwhile, has an EarthLink proposal on the agenda for this Saturday's County Board meeting.
A few details about these EarthLink systems that didn't make the paper:
* It's non-exclusive; another company can offer to set up the same kind of network.
* Other companies can buy access to this network at a wholesale rate and then resell it under their own name (a fairer deal than EarthLink has received from cable and DSL carriers when it's tried to sell its service via their facilities).
* The special receiver most people will need to connect to the nearest transmitter will be pretty cheap--$3.95 a month to rent, or $69.95 to buy.
* EarthLink is talking to Baltimore about setting up a city-wide network there and is interested in doing business with D.C. also.
* EarthLink's 2500 households/square mile formula, which I mentioned at the end of the piece, assumes that about 15 percent of these homes will sign up; it also assumes that governments will purchase service too. (Want to see if your city is dense enough? Try this page on the Census Bureau's Web site.)
I don't usually say this about a not-quite-available technology or service, but I am excited about municipal wireless. This could solve some basic problems with the telecom market as we've known it. I'm also happy with it as a taxpayer--these kinds of networks could save a lot of money for government agencies that no longer have to pay for expensive wireless-data services for their facilities and vehicles.
Lest people think I've OD'd on the happy pills this week, I can't yet say that I'd sign up for such a service were it to become available in my neighborhood. I do a lot of work from home and don't have time to wait for my Internet connection to come back up; I'd want to see how it worked over a few months in the real world. I'd also need to inventory my own bandwidth needs carefully first.
But I'm not exactly the typical customer here, so enough about me. Would you dump your existing broadband service for a package like this? If you still use dial-up, would this persuade you to upgrade? Let me know in the comments.
April 19, 2007; 9:04 AM ET
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