Last year, according to a 2006 report published by ABI Research, municipal Wi-Fi networks covered only about 1,500 square miles worldwide (that's 3,885 square km). But by 2010 this figure is expected to increase to 126,000 square miles (over 325,000 square km). The bulk of these deployments will be in North America and the Asia-Pacific region, and the impact will be felt in the commercial, as much as the government, sector.
It's hard to dispute these numbers given that over 300 U.S. cities of all sizes have deployed wireless networks, issued an RFP to have one built or created a steering committee to pursue the initiative. Initially, the commercial sector wasn't much involved with, or affected by, these initiatives. According to Sam Lucero, a senior analyst with Wireless Connectivity Research for ABI, "In 2004, 2005, the major impetus for getting wireless projects off the ground were municipal government-driven projects."
Now there is a swelling tide that appears to be raising all boats. "What we're seeing as municipal wireless becomes more mainstream is that it's less about government desiring to have its first responders or other mobile employees better connected and more about getting new subscribers."
With the rise of RFPs awarded to companies whose business models call for ad sales and paid end-user subscriptions, there is going to be a push to get businesses onto these municipal networks. Much of this attention will result from the winners waking up to the reality that the networks they agreed to build for cities for "free" in many cases are not sustainable solely through ad or subscription sales. As David Jensen, CIO for the City of Fremont, Calif., states, "To be honest, I have my doubts about this. I think it's pretty dicey. Of course, Google is making a decent profit off of clicks. Is there room for others? Possibly. But are [ad sales] enough to keep a network operating and defray the capital costs? Wi-Fi is relatively cheap, but it's not free."
So what's a service provider to do? Sell premium packages, of course. Midsize organizations in larger cities, with workers and executives who are mobile mostly about town, should view municipal broadband Net access as an alternative to cost-prohibitive cellular networks. In suburban and more rural areas, muni networks are the only option (for now).
Innovative thinking will lead to a wave of business services. As the square mileage of muni wireless deployment jumps, mobile application vendors will find new opportunities to leverage these buildouts.
Consider a vendor selling fleet management applications. It may have prospects that are reluctant to buy because of the costs for infrastructure, cellular networks or software installation and support. With citywide Wi-Fi in place, the vendor can save prospects money by piggybacking onto this network infrastructure, creating an ASP model and getting prospects to purchase Wi-Fi--enabled smartphones.
Business use of wireless applications also should increase as both major metropolitan areas and entire counties deploy municipal broadband. Once you have massive stretches of geography under the Wi-Fi umbrella, your mobile workforce can rely on the network to support a range of mobile applications. In fact, the low price of muni Wi-Fi service should cause a shift from cradle syncing to real-time data transfer between the field and the home office.
Muni wireless is a train that's leaving the station. Is your business going to be on board, or left behind? //