Ten years ago, the idea of an entire city being blanketed with wireless broadband coverage was a bit far-fetched. But not to Craig Mathias, who remembers giving speeches about it in 1998. 'A lot of people thought I was nuts,' says Mathias, principal of wireless advisory Farpoint Group in Massachusetts.
Today, of course, the idea isn't nuts at all - it's already a reality in many cities. Around the world, urban wireless broadband systems are spreading, with various technologies and business models being tried out to see what makes the most sense. The question now is not whether such networks are possible, but which technology should be used and who should initiate and operate them.
From the point of view of a city government, providing citizens and visitors with a cheap and easy way to get online might seems like a natural responsibility, especially if Internet access is viewed as an essential utility, like water or electricity.
Of course, most telcos view things differently, having invested heavily in order to profit from users accessing their networks. In Pennsylvania telcos lobbied hard after the city of Philadelphia announced its intention to build a city-wide wireless system. The result was a new state law dictating that cities can only build and operate such systems if the telcos have no interest.
Whatever the legalistic maneuverings, city-wide wireless coverage is something that both private and government players are racing to offer. On the commercial side, there are quick and nimble players willing to try out business models and technologies that entrenched interests would have little incentive to consider.
In Australia a proprietary wireless broadband system called iBurst, from ArrayComm, already covers the central business districts of many east coast cities. In San Francisco Google and EarthLink will offer free city-wide Wi-Fi that generates revenue from small online advertisements.
And, on the government side, more and more cities, especially in the US, are starting to look to the savings they could realize through urban-wide wireless networks.
'Think of a municipal government as a large enterprise,' says Esme Vos, a consultant to cities and the founder of muniwireless.com, which focuses on municipal wireless projects. If a city can save enough on operational cost via a wireless system, extending that same system to citizens isn't hard to imagine, she says.
In Corpus Christi, Texas, she notes, gas meters are now read automatically via a city-wide wireless system, which generates more revenue for the government because it's more accurate (customers previously were not being charged enough, apparently). Another US city, she says, is considering how much it could save if building inspectors did not need to return to the office between every trip to a building.
'They could inspect three to four times more buildings,' she says. 'That's the kind of calculation they're making.'
Most cities, when they consider which technology to use, turn to Wi-Fi. One nice thing about Wi-Fi, notes Mathias, is that 'it's a single technology that works in every venue that anybody would care about, essentially everywhere in the world. There is no other wireless communications vehicle that can make that claim.'
Robin Simpson, Sydney-based research director of mobile and wireless at Gartner, notes that about 60-70% of laptops today have Wi-Fi, and by 2007 it will be something like 90%. 'So at the client end,' he notes, 'it would seem to be the most obvious access technology.'