Communities are advertising ubiquitous broadband as an attractive amenity, and homeowners associations are investing in the technology at the prompting of residents.
It’s an interesting idea, but not a new one. Folks might remember the municipal WiFi craze of twenty years ago when cities everywhere were considering installing massive outdoor WiFi networks as a way to provide broadband to everybody. This was such a hot topic that there was even a magazine for municipal WiFi and conventions where folks came to learn about it. The largest such experiment was in Philadelphia, but there were many other cities that tried this on a smaller scale.
All of the early attempts for creating massive outdoor WiFi failed. The main reason for the failure was technical. The technology required deploying large numbers of pole or building-mounted radios that operated in a mesh network. The radios were mounted fairly close to each other so that there was a radio every several blocks in all directions. The advantage of a giant mesh network was that a customer walking around a community never left the network and didn’t have to keep logging in to keep the same connection.
But there was a giant downside that was never solved. The mesh radios constantly communicated with neighboring radios so the network could reconfigure to avoid a faulty or overloaded radio. It turns out that large early mesh networks spent more bandwidth communicating between neighboring radios than in providing bandwidth to users. The whole concept crumbled once a few cities tried this on any scale.
The other issue that killed the idea was that home broadband was improving drastically during this same time period. Speeds were climbing from cable companies and telcos, and folks were suddenly able to buy speeds of 6 Mbps to 12 Mbps, which quickly made the 1-2 Mbps speeds on wireless mesh networks feel glacial.
Over the years, outdoor WiFi technology has improved dramatically like other technologies. Since the early days of the technology, the FCC approved the 5 GHz, and more recently the 6 GHz bands of spectrum for use in WiFi networks. Outdoor hotspots that are fed with significant backhaul can now easily deliver speeds that are adequate for most of the kinds of uses of broadband that would be expected outdoors. Folks can watch videos, join Zoom calls, and use the outdoor WiFi network to stay connected.
Hotwire claims that the demand for outdoor WiFi has also grown due to people now working from home. It’s attractive for employees to take a laptop to the pool or a park rather than be tied to a desk all day.
I’ve talked to a lot of cities that have already expanded or are considering expanding public WiFi to parks and other public areas. The pandemic showed a lot of city officials that there are a lot of folks who need broadband access and don’t have it at home for some reason. It’s one of those amenities that, once you have it, you wonder how you lived without it.