Municipal WiFi is emerging as an alternate choice for Internet access in a growing number of communities. Operational mostly in small towns and cities, muniWiFi systems are now also in various stages of deployment in larger metro areas.

What are the competitive implications for cable? Not huge. MuniWiFi systems typically offer low prices and support for nomadic use throughout their coverage areas. However, the competitive impact probably will be limited by relatively low data rates — generally not exceeding 1 Mbps downstream — and poor indoor coverage. Without extra-cost in-building repeaters, it will be difficult for users to access a muniWiFi system unless they are in perimeter rooms and no higher than the second floor above street level. There is a lot yet to be learned about muniWiFi, not least whether operators’ business models are achievable, and how the operators can adapt if revenue comes in lower, or costs more, than anticipated.

Municipal WiFi System Deployments
July 2005 March 2007
Source: Esme Jos, founder of muniwireless.com
Operating Systems:
• Region/citywide 38 81
• City hotzones 22 57
Deployments in Process 34 164
Total 94 302

Despite its competitive aspects, muniWiFi represents an intriguing opportunity for cable operators. A cable-affiliated muniWiFi system could support nomadic Internet access for cable modem subscribers while also offering a sub-low-tier data service to non-cable subscribers. Mounting WiFi access points on cable’s aerial plant and using cable facilities for backhaul links would reduce network build-out costs and increase system capacity.

MuniWiFi systems might also enhance future cable-industry mobile wireless services. Stuart Lipoff, a partner at consulting firm IP Action, is presenting a technical paper at The Cable Show that argues muniWiFi’s microcell architecture could add substantial capacity for mobile broadband data applications such as downloading music or video content to mobile handsets ("Future Tense: A Sneak Preview of Game-Changing Technologies," Wed, May 9, 11:15 a.m., Breakers H). "This will be important," Lipoff says, "since revenue from mobile broadband data applications is unlikely to compensate for the disproportionate burden these apps will place on conventional large-cell wireless networks using precious mobile spectrum."

In some areas, especially in central business districts, cable plant is usually underground or otherwise not readily accessible to mount and connect WiFi access points. In these areas, cable operators would need to use non-cable structures, such as light poles, thus bringing into the picture municipal authorities, utilities and, in some cases, building owners. The exciting prospect of negotiating with these stakeholders will be one of the items on the table as cable operators consider the pros and cons of taking an active role in municipal WiFi deployments.

Peter D. Shapiro is an industry veteran and principal at PDS Consulting, a cable & telecoms consultancy (www.pdsconsulting.net). He can be reached at: peter@pdsconsulting.net.

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