Proving again that most municipal Wi-Fi efforts end in disaster, the city of Seattle ended its wireless experiment at the end of April after seven years of trying to make free broadband work. An announcement on the city’s website proclaimed:
The SeattleWiFi free community wireless service will be discontinued on April 29, 2012. The pilot project has been serving the University District, Columbia City and four downtown parks (Steinbrueck, Occidental, Freeway, and Westlake) since 2005. The service, provided in collaboration with the UW and neighborhood chambers of commerce, has been well-used and especially in Columbia City, helped contribute to the areas’ revitalization. The City would encourage other providers or sponsors to consider supporting free Wi-Fi service in these areas and other neighborhood business districts.
Seattle is only the latest in a string of cities to fail at delivering free Wi-Fi. Although many of these municipal projects began with great promise, a combination of network difficulties, failed management, and opposition from local Internet providers has served to doomed most.
In Seattle’s case, the city claims the cost of maintaining network equipment was ultimately too high. When I lived near Philadelphia, the main issue was a problem with outsourced management to Earthlink, which ended up backing out of the municipal Wi-Fi business entirely. In Philadelphia, however, the muni Wi-Fi effort also ran into resistance from local Internet service providers (ISPs). Comcast in particular is headquartered in downtown Philadelphia, and it saw the wireless venture as a competitive threat. Comcast wasn’t responsible for mothballing the Philadelphia project – which is still stuck in limbo to this day – but it did succeed in working with Verizon to push Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to pass a new statewide law on the municipal Wi-Fi issue. With the exception of Philadelphia, cities in Pennsylvania are now required to give local ISPs right of first refusal in bids to supply high-speed Internet service.
Going back to Seattle, apparently the plan now is to sell off excess fiber capacity to help recoup costs. According to The Seattle Times, the city spent more than $50 million on the network it is now discarding.
On a more positive note, contrast the Seattle or Philadelphia situation with Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga developed a business case for community-owned broadband and has succeeded in building out a fiber network with Internet speeds up to one gigabit per second. That’s muni broadband done the right way, and it suggests that Chattanooga has a lot to teach other cities about network deployment. Maybe Seattle officials should take a field trip south.