Four years ago, municipal Wi-Fi rode in on a great wave of promise: free Internet for all residents! It offered a utopian vision of whole cities becoming hotspots where people could surf the Web from a park bench, closing the digital divide in the process.
That promise has gone largely unfulfilled. After signing Internet companies to big contracts to blanket their cities with access points to create mesh networks, municipal governments have since experienced a severe case of buyer's remorse.
The problem was that they set out with the wrong business model, explains Stan Schatt, vice president of ABI Research and lead author of a new report projecting a 60-fold increase in government-funded Wi-Fi coverage over the next four years.
"There've been all kinds of approaches that have been tried, mostly unsuccessful," Schatt said in an interview with InternetNews.com. Consumer Internet use should be a secondary concern for muni Wi-Fi deployments.
"Most of the business is public safety and secure internal networks for municipal workers," Schatt said, describing the government services as an "anchor tenant" of the municipal model.
According to Schatt, citywide Wi-Fi networks will work if the government's emergency services networks are established as the engine of revenue, delivering the provider a "guaranteed flow of funds for a period of time."
Once the network's revenue structure is established, the consumer applications can follow. Schatt anticipates a model where cities would offer residents Internet access for a nominal monthly charge, with subscriptions driven by the increasing use of mobile devices to access the Internet.