Technology

Cities Back Off Free Wi-Fi Plans

Cellular 3G and 4G networks and wireless spectrum are expanding. Free municipal Wi-Fi -- not so much.

Just four years after Uncle Sam called for widespread free municipal wireless service, the dream of public Wi-Fi networks is over -- at least for now -- in many U.S. cities.

Although Minneapolis and other cities have such systems in place, many other highly touted projects, including ones in Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco, have been abandoned. The Federal Communications Commission, which had promoted city Wi-Fi networks, barely mentions them anymore as a way to bring broadband Internet access to more Americans.

Such networks have been done in by technology and cost problems as well as by FCC rules that limit their effectiveness.

Wi-Fi sends information by radio waves that attenuate -- or dampen -- over distance. Planners originally believed that 20 antenna towers per square mile would be sufficient to provide good Wi-Fi coverage, but in reality, with current technology, it takes 50 or more towers to do the trick. And FCC rules limit the spectrum that can be used for city Wi-Fi to the 2.4 and 5 megahertz bands, which carry other traffic, causing interference. Wi-Fi antennas are also restricted to 1 watt of power, further limiting the distances that signals can travel.

However, new FCC rules will open up more spectrum to wireless networks -- in the so-called white spaces between television channels -- and a new standard for television antennas may revive interest in municipal Wi-Fi in the next few years. But by then, they would face stiff competition for user attention from rapidly expanding cellular 3G and 4G networks.

Municipal Wi-Fi plans were driven by a desire to overcome the digital divide, which separates people who have such access from those who don’t. But a new study from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency in the Department of Commerce that advises the president on telecommunications and information policies, notes that 64% of households now have the broadband connections at home -- up from just 9% in 2001.

Most Popular

Dying Careers You May Want to Steer Clear Of
careers

Dying Careers You May Want to Steer Clear Of

It’s tough to change, but your job could depend on it. Be flexible in your career goals – and talk with your kids about their own aspirations, because…
September 13, 2021
5 Top Dividend Aristocrats to Beef Up Your Portfolio
dividend stocks

5 Top Dividend Aristocrats to Beef Up Your Portfolio

The 65-member Dividend Aristocrats are among the market's best sources of reliable, predictable income. But these five stand out as truly elite.
September 14, 2021
7 Best Commodity Stocks to Play the Coming Boom
commodities

7 Best Commodity Stocks to Play the Coming Boom

These seven commodity stocks are poised to take advantage of a unique confluence of events. Just mind the volatility.
September 8, 2021

Recommended

17 Free or Cheap Things to Do With Your Kids During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Raising Money-Smart Kids

17 Free or Cheap Things to Do With Your Kids During the COVID-19 Pandemic

We’ve got lots of kid-friendly activities to do at home that will keep your family safe and your finances sound.
September 8, 2021
10 New Products Apple Could Release This Fall
Technology

10 New Products Apple Could Release This Fall

Here’s what we think Apple is going to announce at its Sept. 14 event, from sure bets like the iPhone 13 to longshots like an all-new MacBook Air.
September 7, 2021
Complain and Be Heard
Smart Buying

Complain and Be Heard

Getting our money back for the extended warranty and gap insurance we didn't want took patience and persistence.
August 31, 2021
A Fund for Betting on Infrastructure
Becoming an Investor

A Fund for Betting on Infrastructure

The SPDR S&P Kensho Intelligent Structures ETF invests in both industrials firms and new technologies for clean energy.
August 26, 2021