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Pioneering muni-WiFi's early struggles

The city of St. Cloud, FL, launched what analysts say is the country's first free citywide WiFi network. These analysts may have their own definition of "free," but residents of this 28,000-person Orlando suburb are still paying to use their own Internet service providers as dead spots and weak signals keep some residents offline and force engineers to retool the free system. St. Cloud is a small town, but the troubles with the small town's big Internet project may hold lessons for municipalities from Philadelphia to San Francisco considering similar networks.

St. Cloud is spending more than $2 million on a network it sees as a pioneering model for liberating local families, schools and businesses from monthly Internet bills. It also promises to help the city reduce its own cellular phone bills and let paramedics in an ambulance talk by voice and video to hospital doctors. It has not quite worked this way. "All technology has its hiccups, and sometimes more than hiccups," St. Cloud Mayor Donna Hart said. "I think that it's going to be a major challenge, and it'll probably be a major challenge for some time until the technology is such that it works properly."

Several cities have WiFi hotspots, but St. Cloud's 15-sq.-mi. network is the first to offer free access citywide, says technology maven Glenn Fleishman. Other cities like Tempe, AZ, have networks covering a larger area (187 sq. mi.), but access is not free. Planned projects in places like Chicago and Philadelphia would also dwarf St. Cloud's network, but also require a fee for access.

St. Cloud launched the network on a trial basis in May 2004 in a new division of town to help give businesses an incentive to relocate. After further exploring the benefits, officials decided to expand it citywide. Project supporters say increased efficiency in city government will cover the network's $2.6 million build-out and estimated $400,000 annual operating expense. For example, phones which use the WiFi network will allow the city to cut cellular phone bills for police and city workers. The city could also add 10 city inspectors by reducing the number of back-office employees (the network will allow employees to enter and access data on-site instead of driving back to the office).

As of last week, nearly 3,500 users had registered for the network, logging 176,189 total hours of use. St. Cloud contracted with Hewlett-Packard to build the project and provide customer support. Many of the logged calls have been from frustrated residents who complain about missing access points and weak signals. Some residents can see receivers from their homes and still cannot sign on--even on the porch. Still, HP said that there were only 842 help-line calls out of more than 50,000 user sessions in the first 45 days of service.

Fleishman says the fact that city residents are so frustrated with the service is a crucial technical and public relations problem for the pioneering project. He said residents should understand many will not be able to use the free network without additional equipment to strengthen the signal. "It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit some of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is out there," he said. "Products have to catch up to this new market." Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems--in bigger cities, even larger ones--if they did not fully inform the public of necessary equipment and network limits.

For more on St. Cloud's WiFi experience:
- see Travis Reed's Mercury News report

ALSO: Three months after Annapolis Wireless Internet quietly launched a free local network, the company has teamed up with Nortel, an $11-billion-a-year telecom giant, to help it expand coverage throughout downtown Annapolis and Eastport, MD. Report

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