Wireless woes: why large scale municipal networks have troubles sustaining

I’ve been thinking a lot of about how a large scale wireless municipal network can exist. Even before starting my research for my nonprofit, having done research projects on the WiFi protocol back in 1999, and helping launch Greensboro’s downtown wireless.
Why is it interesting? To have a free large-scale network requires a large-scale wired network. If you go by the way of mesh, then it requires a great deal of RF engineering. RF engineers are not cheap, and even if you get volunteers, the initial infrastructure costs are pretty large. Still, it’s a lot easier to manage in the long run if it’s a paid network.


But the problem with free? Well, it’s mainly because it’s free. Everyone wants everything (privacy, high-speed, wireless protection) but no one wants to pay for it. Well, someone has to pay for it eventually if not at the beginning. So how can it support itself?
From my research, most wireless networks are not widespread due to poor user infiltration. You usually concentrate on major hotspots of users instead of blanket covering since it’s wasteful of resourcing. Why market to a spot in the network where there are only 10 users when you can market to one where there are 100? So that leads to location tracking and advertising. But the advertisement model goes against the privacy model. So what do you do?
Many of the major municipal networks in place currently are either hobbyist networks with business support, or advertisement based. Some are supplied by grant funds or marketing funds since people seem to think that wireless will differentiate their city from the rest ( it doesn’t, just like having a McDonald’s in your town doesn’t make it any more special then the next town).
So is blanket coverage bad? No. Take a look at Clearwire. Different wireless technology, blanket coverage. It’s also a paid service provider so they’re eventually gaining back all the initial costs of infrastructure while free networks are always looking for sponsors.
One last fun poke. Why is it that people think that WiFi is new? I’ve read it time and again in multiple articles from people that basically seem to not understand wireless in the slightest. The 802.11b protocol was set up in 1997. By 1999, there was off-the-shelf components and the beginnings of hobbyist networks. The big push by WiFi was around 2000 where the hobbyist networks had taken off. It’s practically been decade since most first adopters have been using the technology. Wireless isn’t new in the slightest, and neither is WiFi. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Seattle Wireless. Up and at it since the millenium. [sigh]