The dream of wireless networks bathing U.S. cities in free and pervasive internet access has come to an end.

So says Wired magazine (or its news desk, at any rate):

It’s a harsh dose of reality that juxtaposes the giddy enthusiasm for ubiquitous Wi-Fi that cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston and many others displayed only a few years ago. In part, that enthusiasm was based on a handful of assumptions. The first was that advertising could support citywide connectivity, enabling the services to be free or low-cost. Many proponents also argued that residents would actually want to use the free networks. Both assumptions were mistaken.

Esme Vos, an intellectual-property lawyer who tracks various national municipal projects on her site, MuniWireless, notes a pronounced downturn in muni Wi-Fi projects and attributes that trend to telecoms finally realizing they have no clear path toward profit with the agreements they currently have in place.

When companies like MetroFi and Earthlink started bidding for contracts in 2004, they often agreed to some spectacularly generous terms. For instance, many telecoms acquiesced to footing the entire bill for network build-out, maintenance and upgrades. They would also frequently agree to pay the cities to lease public property, such as light poles, which would hold Wi-Fi transmitters. Earthlink’s canceled San Francisco contract contained many of these terms.

Then, there was the issue of radio transmitters needed to broadcast the signal. With a range of just 100 or 200 feet at most, Wi-Fi networks simply don’t provide adequate access — especially for people in buildings or other enclosed areas. As a result, most networks deployed in the past several years have required between 20 and 100 percent more access points than budgeted, according to journalist Glenn Fleishman.

Lack of demand was the final nail in the coffin. Although cities and telecoms expected 10-25 percent of an area’s population to sign up for muni Wi-Fi, what they got, in many cases, was closer to 1 or 2 percent, Fleishman reports.

Well, shit. I always like the idea (if there’s a Romantic Economics, I subscribe to it. I really do. ‘Giddy enthusiasm’ wouldn’t be far off my response to the Romantic notion of blanket, ether-like, WiFi). I, too, do not think this is the end of the idea, though, or any sort of proof that Big Government attitudes towards municipal WiFi are doomed.

Hendricks isn’t ready to give up on the general public just yet, and says the public Wi-Fi story is far from over. “Lets just say things work in waves,” he said. “You see this a lot, especially in the Silicon Valley. The first time around, projects don’t go so well. Then you try again.”

In fact, Hendricks characterizes the recent downturn in muni Wi-Fi projects simply as “the end of the first beginning.”

The second beginning, he says, may already be underway with the IEEE’s work on 802.11s, a yet-to-be-ratified amendment to the Wi-Fi standard that defines how wireless devices can interconnect to create decentralized, ad-hoc networks, or “mesh networks.

Mesh-networking systems are designed to be self-configuring, allowing wireless nodes to find one another and create links automatically or with very little user intervention. Recent reports from market-analysis company In-Stat show that the Wi-Fi mesh-networking equipment market had more than 100 percent growth in 2006, and will have more than 90 percent growth in 2007.

Hendricks says technologies like WiMax, which offers longer range and higher bandwidth than Wi-Fi, may also prove to be a particularly appealing model for cities. Companies like Sprint and Clearwire have already stated they will begin investing billions of dollars for major WiMax build-outs in metropolitan areas like New York in the coming year.

“Cities are saying: Wait a minute, if these guys are doing all the work, why should we lift a finger?” Hendricks said.

And if the larger, more ambitious municipal networks prove infeasible? Well, growing evidence shows smaller, localized networks may be the answer.

“More localized Wi-Fi is one option – for example, deploying in areas where there are a lot of tourists, foot traffic, business people,” says Vos.

If you’re like me, though, you prefer the Ian Fleming version:

He’s right, you know: disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur.

The latter point (not the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang one: before that) does make sense. I don’t know what sort of difference serving laptops vs. PCs makes to the distributional debate, but municipal WiFi seems more sensible as applied to parks, or areas of congregation, rather than trying to hammer signals into buildings. There is, still, a part of my that would like see an Apollo Project mentality put into this, partly because success would likely bring with it several technological advances, in terms of networking (although mesh networks may be that, already), and because there seem to me still many urban areas that could benefit.

This is another part of my soft paternalism, though: the idea that families all over, say, Queens and the Bronx, aren’t using the internet for the sort of information-gathering purposes that I think they should. How offensive that is depends upon your assumptions of my motives. Opinions differ.

It also ignores something basic: if these households can’t afford, or don’t ‘get’ the importance of, the internet, why am I assuming they’ll have laptops or PCs in the first place? Getting ‘the internet’ is, I’m learning, surprisingly expensive here. In a low-income household I can understand it not being on the list of necessities, but the real barrier to accessing the internet isn’t the Verizon account, it’s having the machinery itself. While I have this evidence-based understanding prejudice in favour of Information as some sort of a merit good, I can’t seriously extend that to household computers, themselves (schools, yes). There are limits.

I also have the benefit of teaching students who parents pay around USD40,000 per year – I don’t really need to worry what they can and cannot afford. I can rage all day against newspapers and tell them that 30 minutes on the internet will give them a month’s worth of the information that gits like Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper ever could. It makes my arguments, not to mention my expectations, lazy.

In this respect, it makes sense for municipalities to bow out of the idea of blasting however-many residential blocks with wireless signals. Let businesses, small networks and municpal parks be covered, let networks and access points ‘swarm’, as it were, to nearer some critical mass, and then see how it goes.

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