Friday, October 23, 2009

St. Cloud, Flor., Residents Face Future without Free Wi-Fi

St. Cloud, Flor., Residents Face Future without Free Wi-Fi

The free network that covers the small city of St. Cloud, Flor., is still in jeopardy: The Orlando Sentinel looks at how St. Cloud residents use the free network that's paid for by the city. Earlier this year, the city council looked to shed the $30K per month paid for service and upkeep due to a shrunken budget. Residents begged the city to continue the network, and the council was able to extend service until January, at which point all bets may be off.

The network is the only publicly funded free Wi-Fi network in the United States that attempts to cover a city and provide indoor access. Previously, I had stated more broadly (and incorrectly) that it was the only city-wide free network, but Phil Belanger among others reminded me that the Google-run Mountain View, Calif., network has a long history of free operation as well.

Still, there are only a handful of public access networks of any kind that cover cities. Miami Beach, Flor., apparently this week just got its act together after years of work to push out city-wide service, with the intention of covering 70 percent of indoor users and 95 percent of outdoor locations with free service. We'll see how that pans out.

Back in St. Cloud, the biggest impact of the network's potential disappearance is on, as usual, the city's most vulnerable population, including Del Miller, who relies on the service for personal contact and vital communications, and Patricia Bennett, who has no car, and would otherwise be unable to keep up her job search and maintain unemployment benefits.

Vulnerable and unemployed citizens might be better served by creating a public-private partnership with the city kicking in some money for subsidized home service, or working with incumbent carriers for low-income services. AT&T, I believe, still has a $10/mo. low-speed DSL offering which would easily be as fast as whatever the St. Cloud network delivers over Wi-Fi.

When city-wide Wi-Fi was first proposed, one of the key reasons was a lack of affordable access for all residents. While the availability of broadband has improved, its affordability has not.

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