Challenges Facing Municipal Wireless: Case Studies from San Francisco and Silicon Valley

Challenges Facing Municipal Wireless: Case Studies from San Francisco and Silicon Valley

Heather E. Hudson (University of Alaska – Anchorage, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2997-4.ch002


This chapter discusses the challenges facing municipal wireless networks in the United States. It articulates a number of case studies from Silicon Valley. The authors explores the demand, context, and limitation of technology. They conclude that selecting a suitable business model is a key success factor.
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Wireless broadband for San Francisco: “It was the most impossible deal you could imagine. Every mayor in every small town would be famous for at least a day if they stood up on a soapbox and said, 'We are going to have this free service.'” (Settles quoted in Skidmore, 2008)



Providing affordable broadband access to residents in the United States has become a key public policy issue. Residential access to broadband in the U.S. is behind that of many other industrialized countries. Specifically, the U.S. currently ranks 15th among industrialized countries in broadband access per 100 inhabitants, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (OECD, 2011). Adoption of broadband in the U.S. depends highly on socio-economic status. There are only 93 percent of households with annual incomes above $150,000 that have broadband access. In addition, about 45 percent of households with incomes below $25,000 have access to broadband (NTIA, 2011).

Some U.S. cities have responded to limited availability or affordable access to broadband by undertaking initiatives to provide free or low cost broadband via wireless technology (Abdelaal & Ali, 2007; Vos, 2005). To implement a citywide wireless network, also referred to as municipal wireless, cities have several different options when it comes to ownership and business models (Abdelaal & Ali, 2007; Mandviwalla, Jain, Fesenmaier, Smith, Weinberg, & Meyers, 2006). The most common model used by some small cities in and outside the U.S is the city to own and operate the wireless network by itself. Typically, the city contracts with private vendors to supply and install the equipment then operates the network. In a second model, the city selects a private entity (individual company or consortium) to build, own, and operate the network under specific terms required by the city. These terms are likely to include coverage parameters (ranging from public areas such as squares, libraries, parks, and community centers) to complete coverage of the entire city including business and residential areas. They are also likely to include pricing requirements such as providing free access to specific areas or target users, sometimes coupled with another fee-based option with higher bandwidth and/or better security.

In December 2005, the city of San Francisco issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a community wireless broadband network of its own. This initiative received significant national and even international attention, largely because of San Francisco’s visibility in the high tech world, and the involvement of Google in the consortium selected to build and operate the network. However, the project died without any network being built.

This chapter analyzes municipal broadband in the U.S. through multiple case studies from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. In particular, it examines the reasons for its demise and compares San Francisco’s approach with other models for municipal wireless adopted by nearby Silicon Valley communities. It concludes with lessons learned and unresolved issues.

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