The Failure of Public WiFi

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 02: Michelle Z...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

SSRN-The Failure of Public WiFi by Eric Fraser:

This short piece describes the failure of the widespread plans to provide public wireless internet access. It identifies three interrelated types of causes for the near-universal failure of these ambitious plans: regulatory, technical, and economic.

As the article points out, WiFi – while incredibly successful for constrained-area use, as in homes and businesses – has not so far proven very successful when deployed across larger areas. There was once talk of police agencies and similar being able to switch to lower cost, more flexible Wifi-based systems for use in cars, but that has generally not happened. Instead, many are using 3G cellular systems, which at least are also commercial, off-the-shelf sort of solutions (King County, Washington, for example, puts laptops with 3G wireless cards in its police cars).

Google’s experiment near its HQ is an exception, and I think “Free the Net” in San Francisco might qualify as well. Neither are municipally funded, however, and the model has not really been exportable across larger areas.

Ultimately, WiFi is an small-scale system, ideal for its purpose, and fun to extend to larger areas. WiMax and 3G are much more scalable, and do not need to rely on so many access points. The density required is simply too high to cover large areas – I have sometimes had trouble covering an entire house effectively, much less a city block!

On the supply side, the systems simply could not deliver what proponents promised. Because of WiFi’s technical and regulatory limitations on frequency and power output, blanketing a city proved to be prohibitively expensive. Outdoor areas and a few buildings could be wired for wireless access, but no one could deliver anywhere-internet using WiFi. Signals from streets could not penetrate large buildings, and property rights prevented municipalities from installing the required tens of thousands of access points inside private buildings throughout a municipality. As a result, public WiFi networks could be used indoors in only a few areas, or in many outdoor locations.

Sadly, 3G especially comes with costs that many had hoped WiFi might overcome. It is a “top-down” networking solution, provided by big companies, and comes with significant bandwidth charges. WiFi seemed like a wonderful, “bottom-up” approach that leveraged existing wired bandwidth without added additional wireless costs. It still has potential in many circumstances to be useful, whether it be for cafe settings, easily-deployed home networking, in rural areas without signal-blocking obstacles, or even unlicensed long-range point-to-point networks.

Fraser’s article provides more in-depth analysis, including an explanation of the physics at work, the business models, and more ideas about why public WiFi has not succeeded. I recommend it.

(Thanks to the Legal Theory Blog for pointing me to this.)

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