Chicago resurrects muni Wi-Fi plans, issues RFI

The city of Chicago has launched an initiative that could revive the city’s moribund muni Wi-Fi plans and its even older Chicago Civic Net project (launched in 2003).

UPDATE: For those of you who weren’t born yet, I posted the Chicago Civic Net RFP on 25 June 2003 when Muniwireless was barely a few weeks old, so this is one of the earliest public tenders on the website. The bidders were AT&T, SBC and the US subsidiary of Alcatel. Click here to see my old post and to download the RFP.

According to the Chicago Broadband Challenge website, the city wants residents to send ideas on how it can make best use of its existing broadband infrastructure to deliver truly high-speed Internet access to every home and wireless broadband in parks and public spaces. It has also issued an RFI for vendors seeking their input in the creation of a municipal broadband network (for wired and wireless access).

Note that this is nothing like the Wi-Fi everywhere plan that Chicago had a few years ago when it issued an RFP and solicited bids from companies like EarthLink. Chicago (under Mayor Daley) backed down from the muni Wi-Fi plans in August 2007 (here is an excerpt from the city’s press release, posted on MuniWireless under “Chicago Backs Away From Muni Wi-Fi”):

“. . . The City issued an RFP seeking private-sector partners to provide Internet access throughout the city, including free wireless service in schools, parks and major public places. Since that time, the city received two qualified proposals, and spent the past several months evaluating the proposals and engaging in preliminary negotiations. Through the RFP, the City sought to offer the long-term use of its infrastructure, such as street lights and lamp poles, for instance, to a private partner interested in constructing, owning, and operating – at its sole expense – a wireless broadband network throughout Chicago. “In Chicago and in many other cities, a municipal WiFi network was initially envisioned as a way to provide cheaper, high-speed access to consumers,” said Bhatt. “But given the rapid pace of changing technology, in just two short years, the marketplace has altered significantly.” During the City’s negotiation process it determined that the unexpected high cost of building a WiFi network, combined with increased competition from other service providers, meant that these networks are unlikely to succeed without extraordinary financial support from the local government. Even with such support, as is the case in other cities, there appears to be far less demand from consumers for these networks than originally projected. As a result, such an investment of local taxpayer dollars became difficult to justify.” (text in bold is mine)

Let’s review the reasons the city cites for dropping the project and why it might make sense to revive it, as long as it is targeted to areas in the city where lots of people with portable Wi-Fi devices congregate.

Reason 1: Cost
By 2007 municipalities were already experiencing financial difficulties, as the financial crisis was gathering steam. The Chicago city administration understood that to build a network that works well, the city would have to provide significant financial support to the company that deploys and runs the network by becoming an anchor tenant (as in Minneapolis) or paying outright for the network. In 2007, the price of access points was much higher than today and the technology was far less advanced. Today the cost of equipment is much lower but many more people will be using the network because so many carry iPhones and iPads. More people using the network for bandwidth-hungry applications means higher costs.

Reason 2: Consumer demand
Demand for Wi-Fi everywhere did not increase significantly among a broad segment of the population until the release of the iPhone in autumn 2007. At the time Chicago cancelled its plans for a municipal Wi-Fi network, they did not foresee the demand we have today for wireless connectivity.

Since the 2007 launch of the first iPhone, Apple has introduced several generations of the iPhone, the latest being the iPhone 5. It has also introduced the iPad, which now accounts for a large percentage of Wi-Fi traffic. If you include Android phones, you can see that a lot of people now demand fast reliable wireless connectivity for mobile applications while they are on the go. One way to meet this demand is via a cellular connection (3G, 3.5G, LTE) but since the launch of the iPhone, mobile subscribers have complained bitterly about dropped or slow cellular connections. Recently, mobile operators have even ended their “unlimited” data plans and forced subscribers to be more careful with the use of their cellular connections. Hence, people want and prefer using Wi-Fi. In 2007, this was not obvious. There had always been a core group of people (geeks, business people, students, travelers) who demanded Wi-Fi everywhere but it’s only been in the last three years that a broader segment of the population has deemed it necessary.

How should Chicago go about rolling out a city-supported broadband network? How much of it should be wireless? Who should share in the costs? Who should the network serve? Can the city use the fiber that it owns as backhaul for the network?

Chicago municipal broadband RFI

If you want to view (and respond to the Chicago RFI), go to the RFI Broadband Infrastructure Expansion (PDF). It is listed on
http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dps/provdrs/contract/svcs/current_bid_opportunities.html  as Request for Information (RFI) for Broadband Infrastructure Expansion – Spec # 111304. The deadline for responses is 31 October 2012.

 

Comments

  1. This will always be controversial on the idea of the role of government.

    But your two points Esme are quite important. The world has changed in the last decade.

    We can now deploy the necessary number of WiFi access point at 10% of the cost of a decade ago .. and they will perform roughly 10x what they would have a decade ago.

    While more fiber backhaul is just always a goodness … the importance of wireless has only increased. And the importance of WiFi has only increased. WiFi access on a smartphone or tablet is no longer a nice to have … it is a necessity with the vast bulk of smartphone/tablet data traffic on WiFi vs cellular and the increasing dominance of these instruments as our primary method of communication.

    So, is it a good idea for a government to do it?

    We have learned that we can build high quality wireless networks .. with pervasive coverage in the public spectrum. The increasing footprint and success of these networks from the cable vendors – who are now deploying WiFi as their new wireless “triple play” – demonstrates that.

    Seems to me … competition is a good thing. Let’s have more capacity.

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