The state of WiFi

I have been traveling a lot lately, so I have had the opportunity to try out a lot of WiFi hotspots. The good news is that most hotels now have some kind of WiFi available. Business travelers can stay almost anywhere and count on having some kind of Internet access. I have not had to use my Earthlink dial up account in many months. Many "budget" hotels have some kind of free WiFi, with service about what you pay for it (nothing). Service at the far end of the hall in the hotel may be poor, and speeds may be pokey. The more expensive hotels tend to make you pay extra for service, and as time goes by, I begrudge this less and less because the service is usually much better. Many hotels have gone to wired access (Marriotts, most notably) to provide more control--you can't sit in your car in the hotel parking lot and poach free WiFi access with wired in-room connections.

Public WiFi hotspots, if anything, have become harder and harder to find. Many businesses that were experimenting with this service a year or two ago seem to have dropped the service--it costs money. Places like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have service agreements with national providers like T-Mobile and AT&T. But access is still expensive. The going rate for 24 hours of access is still around ten bucks--extortionate since most travelers probably are only connected for an hour or less. Monthly subscriptions are still hovering around $40. This would be reasonable if the big outfits allowed roaming, but they don't. None of the big companies have enough hotspots in enough places to justify the expense, and few can afford to carry two or three $40/month fees just to check email on the road for ten or fifteen minutes.

Community WiFi projects are also struggling, like the St. Cloud, Florida project, where few people use the free service because of quality and access issues. WiFi looks cheap on the front end, often because wireless vendors have financial models that obscure the ongoing costs and take rate issues. If you do a true life cycle comparison with a fiber effort over twenty or thirty years, fiber is not just competitive, but much cheaper. And the real issue with wireless is that it does not provide the speeds that most homes and businessses will want or need in just three to five years. Design Nine is working on several fiber projects right now where we are working with financing specialists to develop some new and innovative ways to build fiber networks. As these projects progress, I'll keep you informed.

Should communities avoid WiFi projects? Absolutely not, but you need to know why you are doing it and how you are going to pay for and manage it over the long term. And you should not rely on wireless vendor promises of "build it and they will come." What St. Cloud has found out is that many people (perhaps most) are willing to pay for more expensive wired broadband connections rather than free but inferior WiFi. As I have been saying for a long time, communitywide wireless projects have to be approached very very carefully.

Technology News: