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Business models still evolving as public Wi-Fi spend hits a high

A report from the Wireless Broadband Alliance reveals that most city CIOs have plans in place to significantly increase their investment in public Wi-Fi networking, but see challenges around their business models

Spending on public wireless networking services by city governments has reached unprecedented levels around the world, as authorities seek assistance to deploy the technology, with more than 75% planning a significant increase in future investment, according to a white paper by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA).

The white paper was prepared by the WBA’s Connected City Advisory Board, a working group formed in July 2015, made up of city government CIOs from around the world, including Barcelona, Calgary, Dublin, Liverpool, Mexico City, New York, Singapore, San Francisco and San Jose. It conducted research in 44 cities on six continents around the world.

The report revealed that 40% of those who provided input planned to initiate deployment of city-wide networks over the next two years.

Just over 58% of respondents said their preferred business model was to make the network free to use with third-party sponsorship, while a third preferred a freemium model with extra speed available for a small fee.

The report also registered a lot of common interest from telco operators, which frequently have the necessary applications, billing systems and compliance practices, as well as mobile customer bases, to enter into partnership models, although the WBA said these models needed to be more clearly defined.

The challenges holding back Wi-Fi deployment were revealed to be lack of expertise, heightened public expectations of free network availability, an overwhelming choice of technologies, and costs associated with establishing and operating public Wi-Fi services.

The white paper also identified a need to justify the value of public Wi-Fi based on benefits and revenue prior to roll-out.

The report also showed a widespread lack of awareness when it came to the use of wireless connectivity to provide the underpinnings for smart city and internet of things (IoT) type services. The majority of respondents were only considering their networks in terms of delivering basic internet access to the public, and operators and cities were still reviewing opportunities to define and deploy other services.

However, there were some signs that awareness of this potential was now growing. Jamie Cudden, smart city programme manager at Dublin City Council, who was quoted in the report, said the council’s initial Wi-Fi roll-out had been somewhat flawed, and the network had been little used by the public, particularly as better 4G services became available.

However, he said, the council was now more aware of the boom in IoT and connected devices, and said this would play a role in its Wi-Fi strategy in the future; Dublin is already beginning to see larger deployments of sensor networks around the city, and hopes to deploy more infrastructure to cater to this.

“We’re looking to implement a model that will effectively leverage our extensive city infrastructure assets. This is set against the background of limited financial resources, and we have to be smart in how we achieve future deployment,” said Cudden.

“Some interesting models that we are investigating include a ‘shared Wi-Fi’ service that allows local business to share a portion of their bandwidth and co-brand it as a public Wi-Fi solution,” he added.

Paco Rodriguez, smart cities and telecommunications director at Barcelona City Council, has already moved further along this route, and has implemented several smart city projects via city-wide public Wi-Fi.

These have included video access for sites left off the optical fibre network; traffic light operations; parking services; and contamination control. Barcelona is also monitoring the flow of people around the city using Cisco Location Analytics, and has deployed free public Wi-Fi on its public transport network.

Barcelona’s network spans more than 800 access points – 629 outdoor and 223 indoor – covering 40% of the city centre, and Rodriguz said he was now exploring the possibility of powering them using solar energy where possible.

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Yes, it's a very complex thing. Then again, so is delivering water or electricity to the town square.... It's about time all of business (and politics)  understands that WiFi is how we connect, how we communicate, how we learn, how we teach. Just as lights are how we see at night. It's a service we can expect; it's why we pay our  taxes.

Now that that's settled, would someone please tell the airport and my hotel...
"See challenges around their business models" = "cannot work out how to pay for the resilient and secure mesh infrastructures necessary for a smart world other than fixed and mobile telcos who expect to see revenue streams to cover operating costs, even if commercial property owners will give "free" access and wayleaves to those who will give a choice of world class services to their tenants." I am currently organising a group to look at (and hopefully implement) recommendations for the next of Mayor of London on how to address the problem - without spending money he will not have.

There are answers but they depend on cutting the cost/delay to operators and infrastructure providers (not necessarily the same thing) of quadrupling (at least) the number of aerial sites and making equally massive upgrades to fibre backhaul networks to handle the current (let alone future) traffic volumes. That entails giving priority to encouraging voluntary co-operation in joining up currently fragmented policy, planning and regulatory functions and equally fragmented (sector by sector) installation, performance and inter-operability standards.

All of this is politically boring snoring, compared to grandiose but semi-useless (and sometimes even counter-productive) gestures like "free wifi". Hence my difficulty in getting support from those who stand to benefit most but currently stand on the sidelines winging.

P.S. It was good to meet you (Alex) at the Parliament and the Internet event last week. If you would like to do a feature on this ...