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.