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Trend: Diverse muni-WiFi landscapes

There is a groundswell of community networks around the world, with U.S. communities leading the way. Yankee Group estimates there are around 300 municipal wireless projects in the US and municipal wireless projects will probably account for a $400 million spend next year, an impressive year-on-year growth (from a very modest base, though).

The worldwide market is fragmented one because these networks have as many different names as strategic deployments and business models. Yankee Group's Berge Ayvazian says these networks fall into some categories depending on the nature of their ownership.

  • Municipal projects are becoming example of public-private partnerships, which offer some benefits to the private participant because the city is typically the anchor user. "Before the network has any subscribers, the city has committed millions of dollars of business to the network," says Ayvazian.
  • Private ownership entities (such as Rio Rancho, New Mexico and Grand Haven, Michigan). Private ownership eliminates all risk, but it also removes flexibility and the government role.
  • Other projects are both municipally owned and operated (examples: Chaska, Minnesota, and Allegheny County, Maryland), but Ayvazian points out that in this case the city governments assume the entire financial burden and require substantial expertise in network build and operation.
  • Another approach supports an own-and-outsource model (examples: Corpus Christi, Texas) where the city owns the network but outsources the operation to an integrator. Here, the focus is on government applications.

European city governments follow different muni-WiFi models, typically because they often lack the technical expertise and staffing that US municipal projects enjoy. One result of this is that European telcos are heavily involved in municipal networks (just think of BT strategy in the UK), whereas major US telcos are largely absent from the municipal network scene.

Yankee Group also suggest that we analyze community network using the tension between bandwidth requirements and mobility requirements. High bandwidth and high mobility needs are driven by economic development needs and business requirements. Digital inclusion of poor neighborhoods can usually be satisfied by modest bandwidth and mobility requirements, and municipal/city government applications themselves typically require relatively modest bandwidths but the facility to be mobile. This diversity of requirements and needs means that the best solutions would probably rely on a mixed bag of rapidly changing technologies. Says Ayvazian. "WiFi and WiMAX are inherently different, but more importantly, complementary, and can come together in the same application."

For more on trends in muni-WiFi:
- see Stephen McClelland's Telecommunications discussion

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