I attended a presentation in Portland, Oregon this week on the City of Portland’s “Unwired Portland” initiative to bring WiMax/Wi-Fi to the city. Although Portland has wisely shied away from the prospect of owning and operating a system themselves, they’re still dreaming. The city wants a commercial enterprise to build a network that:
• Provides free access for all to a “walled garden” of city-related sites
• Provides low-cost access to the disadvantaged
• Provides high QOS service for public safety and other city uses
• Is lower cost to all end users than existing broadband options
• Is offered at wholesale cost to the city
• Is provided on an open access basis so any ISP can resell the service
There was lots of discussion about the wonders of wireless, bridging the digital divide and all the great things that could be done (wireless meter reading; on-site building permits, etc) with wireless, but little acknowledgement of the real obstacles to making this work. The hardware to build networks may be getting cheaper, but the cost of operating those networks and providing customer service is rising. Implicit in the City’s proposal is an assumption that existing commercial services generate such excess profits that operators will be clamoring to build and operate this, despite the multiple ways the City’s requirements drive margins down and costs up. That's not the case. While someone may step up to provide some of this initially (and even Google's much-touted proposal for San Francisco wouldn't come close to providing what Portland wants), I predict that there will never be a wireless service in Portland resembling the “wish list” above.
It’s a shame the City can’t scale back its plans and focus on something workable. Solve the City’s needs by buying service from commercial operators. Verizon offers EV-DO in Portland, and Cingular will be there with HSDPA within six months. Better yet, buy from Clearwire once we launch service there! As for the digital divide issue, are there really a lot of disadvantaged citizens out there, toting laptops but stymied from joining the rest of us on the internet by the lack of a free broadband wireless connection? Besides, Portland, like many cities, is full of free Wi-Fi hotspots. The Personal Telco project in Portland has set up free sites all over the place – in cafes, streets, parks, etc. Publicize those to the disadvantaged, set a few new ones up in easy-to-access places – in short, do the easy, quick things rather than the grand, overarching scheme.