As municipal Wi-Fi projects have stumbled, carriers are pouring more funds into their 3G wireless offerings.
Municipal Wi-Fi -- understood as an outdoor Wi-Fi blanket of wireless mesh nodes -- was touted, with new millennium fervor, as the means to bridge the digital divide, spur economic development miracles, and sidestep the telco/cable oligarchy that was choking money out of consumers for Internet access. And doing it all on the cheap with 802.11 wireless gear.
But in 2007, municipal Wi-Fi projects began to stumble. Some dissolved in political battles, as in San Francisco. Others failed when network providers began to balk at terms and conditions demanded by municipal authorities. Still others (at least so far) have simply not realized their promise, with subscribers and subscriber growth far below projections.
Meanwhile, the service provider oligarchy has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into extending and improving 3G data services: Revision A Evolution-Data Optimized ((EV-DO) technology for CDMA nets, and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System/High Speed Downlink Packet Access (UMTS/HSDPA) for GSM networks.
Both groups of carriers are actively working on still faster technologies for “4G” services in the future, which will far surpass Wi-Fi mesh networks (at least until wireless LAN gear based on the 802.11n standard becomes widely deployed).
And there’s a booming market in femtocells: in essence, these are small signal boosters that create an optimal, reliable and pervasive cell signal within homes and office buildings.
What may emerge instead of an either-or choice is ultimately a both-and choice, where network providers and municipalities manage to find models that let them exploit the strengths of both 802.11 and cellular wireless networks.