A recent Associated Press article on Lompoc, Calif.'s public broadband project was a key topic at this week's MuniWireless New England.
The AP article, which was run by many newspapers around the country, used that town project's failures as an example of how municipal Wi-Fi is wasting taxpayer dollars. The article said that "many cities are finding their Wi-Fi projects costing more and drawing less interest than expected, leading to worries that a number will fail, resulting in millions of dollars in wasted tax dollars or grants when there had been roads to build and crime to fight."
"The entire article was premised on the Lompoc, Calif., network. It was a delayer, that's true and that number of people who had signed up for service was disappointing. But he never mentioned St. Cloud, Fla., which is free and 77 percent of the households have signed up," said Esme Vos, the founder of MuniWireless.
Municipal broadband is the building of a public broadband infrastructure that can be used as a platform to offer things like free public Wi-Fi in city spaces.
But free Wi-Fi paid for by taxpayer dollars and subscriptions to residential service is not its only use or business model.
"The wireless IPs come in and cities become an anchor tenant," said Angela Singhal Whiteford, director of municipal solutions for Nortel, explaining the different models the company has worked with. "Or they can do advertising for about $1-$4 per subscriber. That alone will shoot payback in about 6 months. They can integrate applications and use that as a business model. (Our partner in Colorado) already went to utilities in the area and negotiated the pole rights. For the city, that's great," she said. (Pole rights are the rights to use existing electricity poles for power and to mount equipment.)
Public broadband infrastructure can be used to host applications for managing municipal services like surveillance, meter reading, controlling traffic lights, and administering databases, media and proprietary communications systems for police, firefighters, first responders and municipal workers. It can be used to offer things like VoIP for residents.
When it comes to funding, several different models are being tested. Some are funded by offering residents paid-for-use broadband in the home through third-party vendors, but that is not the only way.
Other cities, like Providence, R.I., paid for its public broadband infrastructure through federal public safety grants since it is using the broadband for a proprietary police network. The Department of Agriculture is offering grants for rural towns. Other towns are getting local businesses, which want to bring in better broadband for themselves, to foot the bill for the town.