St. Cloud shuts down free citywide WiFi service

St. Cloud, Florida, one of the first communities in the US to deliver free citywide WiFi service, is shutting it down citing budget problems. What’s very sad about this is that according to the mayor, the people who could not afford DSL/cable Internet service were the ones who used St. Cloud’s free WiFi:

“No matter what people thought of it, it did make our community somewhat unique,” said Mayor Donna Hart, who voted against shutting down Cyber Spot. “We’ve only had it running for three years, so we really haven’t recouped all of our investment. A lot of the citizens who use it are citizens who can’t afford to get Internet service another way.”

The city of St. Cloud was one of the most successful municipal WiFi projects in the US. The previous mayor put a lot of effort into educating the residents about the network. Indeed, it appears to be popular with locals: 22 percent have used the network and 2500 devices connect to it everyday. So this isn’t a case of a failure of the network itself or the service, but rather grim economic circumstances affecting the city’s budget. St. Cloud expects to save $600,000 a year. St. Cloud will continue to use the network for municipal purposes and it may later resume the service.

As we’ve seen in other cases, many US cities that do provide free WiFi service covering a large area usually build the network for other (municipal or public utility) purposes such as automated meter reading or public safety.

This does not mean cities in general are backing down from the idea of providing free large-scale outdoor service. Some Asian cities such as Hong Kong are expanding free WiFi coverage starting from the areas around government buildings and tourist destinations to other parts of their cities. It seems that these cities have the money and the foresight to provide such a service.

Comments

  1. I’m trying to understand why the system costs so much to operate. It can’t take more than 1 guy to manage the system at most. If you don’t provide tech support or enlist some non-profit agency. Data circuits can’t be more than $5000 per month for 100Mbps and that’s should support 3000 simultaneous users or more (with port management) and I’m probably high on that. If the city is going to keep it operating anyway, they are eating the maintenance costs anyway. I would say they need to re-evaluate that budget. Something wrong with that number.

  2. Rory,

    I was also shocked at the high operations costs. I thought perhaps there were two too many zeros.

  3. I agree with the cost disparity and would suggest to St. Cloud to pursue second round broadband stimulus finding and find a private sector partner. This is what happens when you don’t throw all the public and private municipal services into one network.

    I still think this can be recovered if St. Cloud would find support from some private sector partner and use the broadband stimulus as a temporary subsidy to support a new public/private sustainable model. A lot has happened since the municipal wireless pioneer days of St. Cloud. This is just a typical early adopter tragedy that I think can still be salvaged.

  4. I have been looking at this all morning. I am the Technology Director for the City of Granbury, TX. My department operates and maintains a WIFI network exactly 1/2 the size of the St. Cloud network for the City. We do not operate it for free service but rather sell it to the citizens at a reduced rate. I have 1 FTE that is dedicated to supporting this network and the customers that use it. These are paying customers and expect probably much more than a free user would or should. We even use Aptilo for authentication and billing as did the St. Cloud network. The costs that they are quoting here are 6 times what ours is. I cannot fathom how or why the cost to operate this network would be this high. Either numbers are being inflated to justify shutting it down or mismanagement is to blame.

  5. I think some of the problem is the ongoing costs that are associated with 3rd party providers. I am not going to name names but we are finding more and more that a lot of these networks are so expensive to run because of the ongoing cost of authenticating users and provisioning. As both a network operator and integrator this is something we found the first day we opened for business.
    I am going to be shameless and plug our product…
    WiDirect at http://www.AllCity-Wireless.com
    We have found success in bringing operators the tools they need in house to run their network efficiently and effectively.

  6. Perhaps they should have tried open-mesh.com combined with the free basic services from CoovaOM.

  7. Being city operated, they always choose the wrong equipment – the most expensive equipment, typical MO of HUA

    Portland tried to get WiFi and paid a private company $285,000 just to do a STUDY !! for that amount they could have unwired the entire city

    Yet, other cities like Prestonburg KY are finding that they don’t need super expensive $5000 access points, but can do it with $49-$149 APs from Meraki

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwRcI0wEEgo

    Brent Graden, the Director of Economic Development for the City of Prestonsburg, recently received a prestigious award from Government Technology Magazine for “Most Innovative Use of Technology” for the 2008 Technology Awards in Kentucky.

    http://www.wkyt.com/wymtnews/headlines/18061039.html

    I have personally un-wired most of the core area of Downtown Hillsboro out of my own pocket, and I am un-employed !!

    http://p7.meraki.com/network/HILLSBORO-WIFI

    Yet, our community leaders will spend $10,000 on a big piece of green metal called art – that no one sees:

    http://www.hillsboro-wifi.com/pictures/ART800.JPG

  8. Matthew Lampe says:

    Just a clarification…I believe the $285,000 cited for Portland was the staff costs for the entire process, from planning, through the formal RFP process,establishing the contract with the 3rd party, and project and contract management for the 15 months or so before the system was shut down, working with the private power companies and the City’s department of transportation to arrange access, etc. The network was deployed over many square miles and hundreds of thousands of hours of service were enjoyed before the provider was unable to raise additional capital for the required further expansion and shut down.

  9. Still $285,000 was an incredible waste of funds

    The problem with Metro-Fi was not funding, the problem was the technology used, they used few High-power repeaters

    For a WiFi system to work; it has to be 2-way communication – there is no problem getting the 5w signal from the repeater to the user (typically laptop), but the user low power signal suffers incredible path loss path to the repeater. That is why the only way a system is going to work is to use many low power repeaters instead of a few high power units..

    Loss = 38 + 20Log(F) + 20Log(D)

    Look at the history of car phones, before there was a few high power sites around a city and your car had to have a 100w transmitter in it, then they changed to cellular – which means there is always a repeater (cell) close to you so you don’t need a high power unit

  10. Mike, that problem has been around since day 1 and none of the mesh vendors took that into account. However, the second problem was the cost of infrastructure of things like rooftops, bandwidth, etc… Their overhead was ridiculous.

  11. Bob Blackmer says:

    Portland was a fiasco… a classic example of poor management and a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. Can you say boondoggle…