The term ‘muni WiFi’ is rarely heard these days, since the bubble surrounding publicly owned, free city networks burst spectacularly in 2007 after a couple of years of often overwrought enthusiasm. Almost a decade after that initial buzz, the label may have changed, but city networks are certainly back in vogue. Will they thrive this time, and manage to overcome the political, legal and business issues which dogged their ancestors?
There have been plenty of announcements in the past year from major city authorities, especially in north America and western Europe, though there are other significant projects emerging in other parts of the world too, notably China, Japan and Russia. In the US, the FCC hopes to remove legislation which still exists allowing telcos to block city deployments.
The latest announcement comes from Sprint, which is working with Cisco and Kansas City, Missouri to power a free WiFi network.
This deal highlights several important differences between ‘smart city WiFi’ in 2015 and ‘municipal WiFi’ in 2005 – though there are still some worrying similarities, including the hazy grip on a business model seen among some city councils, and the opposition of mobile and broadband providers which are not included in the project. However, as the Kansas City plan shows, there are three principal positive differences.
One, more mobile operators see city networks as an opportunity to grow their business, not as a threat. Two, the costs are far lower ($15m over 10 years, says Sprint, compared to $15m-$18m for just two years of capex and opex, as estimated for the most notorious failed muni network of all, Philadelphia, in 2003).
Three, there are far more applications which cities want or need to run. Ten years ago their main objectives related to public safety, and to improved broadband access for citizens, often with free advertising-supported services, but many found the social and economic benefits hard to quantify, and taxpayers were frequently hostile to subsidizing services.
Most strong business cases for free city broadband (wired or wireless) rest on the networks supporting efficiencies and new ways of working for the city itself, so that the public access is financed by those savings, not by taxes.
The main alternative to using tax dollars is to get a vendor to finance most of the build-out, in return for being able to target the network users with services or adverts (the motivation for Google’s various city partnerships), or to control the additional source of capacity. The latter is the goal for a deal like Kansas City, which will enable Sprint to offload cellular data to its new WiFi system, and to fend off WiFi hotspot and homespot services launched by MSOs.
However, while free equipment from a vendor partner is always welcome, the city really needs to be sure that it can justify the long term operating costs, regardless of what may happen to the vendor alliances in future. That means harnessing advances in large-scale WiFi networks over the past decade, with elements such as cloud-based management and security, which reduce opex significantly and do not require the municipality to hire its own professionals. It also means maximizing the city services which use the network, and in the era of the smart city, that is becoming significant.
Many municipalities are starting to make serious plans to connect infrastructure such as lamps, traffic lights, meters and so on, in order to manage resources and energy efficiently; reduce traffic congestion; support citizen services like online voting and updates; and drive new revenues such as smart parking fees.
Such plans considerably enhance the city WiFi business case. For instance, the Kansas project is based around the city’s 2.2-mile streetcar line, which will provide free internet access in the downtown area at no cost to the taxpayer, and will power “any smart city applications that KCMO may invest in to manage infrastructure along this corridor or adjacent districts”. In addition, the city will create a ‘Living Lab’ in which “qualified and highly targeted emerging internet technologies that can benefit the City can be deployed, tested and validated in a full-scale industrial user environment,” as the municipal ordinance puts it.
In San Jose, California, the investment in a new WiFi network is partly justified by the data collected on air quality in different parts of the city, which is communicated in real time to the public.
However, this is not just muni WiFi reborn. There is a mix of technologies involved. Some of the key smart city applications, such as smart metering and smart lighting, are well served by emerging LPWA (low power wide area) technologies such as Sigfox and LoRa. The cellular vendors are racing to develop comparable low power capabilities – though with broader application – based on LTE. These include the next generation LTE-MTC standard, and more immediate stopgaps based on existing technologies, such as Huawei’s Cellular IoT (based on its Neul acquisition, and with a path to LTE convergence).
While cellular operators like Sprint would ideally like to use 3GPP technologies for these smart city projects, in reality they will offer whichever solution works best to get the important foothold in the city project. So Telefonica has invested in Sigfox and Sprint is using WiFi, to name just two of many examples. This shows a lesson learned from the muni WiFi days, when some mobile and broadband operators went to court to block city network roll-outs, citing unfair competition. They soon changed that stance and made efforts to embrace WiFi for their own ends, taking the lead role in hotspot roll-outs so that they could add new capacity for their own services, while reaching out to more customers. Free WiFi in downtown areas is becoming a staple item on the MNO menu these days, as O2’s offering in the UK indicates.
WiFi, then, does not have the unchallenged role in the wireless city that it had a decade ago, and development of its own new standards – 802.11af and 802.11ah, both for sub-1GHz frequencies – will be important for it to cover the LPWA applications as well as its classic broadband access, local area use cases. Those extensions are in danger of coming rather late and being squeezed between the LPWA technologies and LTE-MTC, though efforts like the Wireless IoT Forum are trying to create common platforms to support a range of connectivity options. Perhaps more importantly, WiFi needs to become more easily plug-and-play in order to support configuration of hundreds of thousands of ‘dumb’ devices in an automated way.
In the end, the smart city is almost certain to revolve around elements of LTE, WiFi and possibly more specialized networks. Ensuring there is no repeat of the failures of the past will depend on platforms which allow those options to work together and to deliver their data to a converged platform. All that data, and the smart analytics systems which will turn it into commercial revenues, will be the real difference between smart cities and muni WiFi. Not only will metropolitan authorities see far more inhouse uses for the wireless networks spreading across their lamp-posts and bus shelters, but they will have more opportunities to harvest large amounts of data, and therefore to support new revenues, for themselves or their partners.