It was hailed as Internet for the masses when Philadelphia officials announced plans in 2005 to erect the largest municipal Wi-Fi grid in the country, stretching wireless access over 135 square miles with the hope of bringing free or low-cost service to all residents, especially the poor. Municipal officials in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and 10 other major cities, as well as dozens of smaller towns, quickly said they would match Philadelphia’s plans.
But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill, tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities.
Our city has it and the last time my cable modem was down I thought I'd try connecting to it and it appears we're on the edge of the coverage area and it couldn't stay connected so they'll not see me shedding any tears if it goes away.
These kinds of public access IT projects are nearly always a bad idea. Because they're not driven by market forces, there's no guarantee the funding will remain in place when city budget cuts strike, and computing technology moves on so quickly that whatever equipment is installed will soon be out of date and have to be replaced anyway.
This isn't like installing a water system or electricity grid where the same infrastructure can be used for decades, but that's the kind of mentality that many city planners have.
Things like 3.5G HSDPA phone networks are already as fast as Wi-fi but with much longer ranges and wider coverage, plus they have the backing of commercial companies. Phone data charges are tumbling worldwide, with many phone networks charging about the same as for a home broadband connection. Non-phone-network technologies like Wimax may also soon make Wi-fi redundant as a way of accessing the internet in public.