March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 09.01.05

Orlando Cancels Free Downtown Wi-Fi Pilot

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By Teresa von Fuchs




Just in time for summer, the City of Orlando, Fla., ended its 17-month free downtown Wi-Fi pilot project. City officials stated low user rates (apparently averaging only 27 users per day) and cost ($1,800 a month!) as the main cause of pulling the “plug.” “We love having and promoting a wireless district, but the usage has been somewhat low,” commented Frank Billingsley, director of the city’s Downtown Development Board.

Orlando is the first high-profile municipal Wi-Fi project to be canceled, and according to Michael King, research director at Gartner, “I don’t think it’ll be the last one.” There was a veritable tabloid craze of headlines about Orlando “axing” and “killing” the project. But there was, initially, very little coverage of what exactly happened in Orlando. Popular blog spot muniwireless.org put forth some questions with a call to readers for answers.

One response came from Orlando resident Terrell Brown, who explained that the “downtown” area of Lake Eola that served as the pilot site is quite small, with very few residents, and that “the vast majority of the 1.5 million people who call the Orlando area home live and work outside of downtown,” and enjoy Eola instead for relaxing, shopping or grabbing a meal. A resident of the Lake Eola area complained that the service was slow and unpredictable. Others discussed the viability of any free model.

King brought up a similar discussion when talking about other municipal Wi-Fi projects around the country and what they could learn from Orlando’s decision. He separates city Wi-Fi projects into two camps, the deployments built for city employees and fieldwork, and those built for the good of the community. “Those community-good type projects are very tough to assign a value to and very tough to justify from a cost perspective.” So even if it’s not free, wireless for the sake of wireless still might not make sense under a cost justification matrix. Whereas so much research has been done about wireless access for mobile workers in the private sector, the cost benefit analysis of making the same connectivity solutions available for city employees is a pretty obvious win.

The Orlando project also might not be dead; at the time this article went to press, Billinglsey was still hoping to shift the project to one where the city could resell wired access to some of the new building projects going into downtown and leverage free wireless that way.

King is still wary, saying, “Across the board, Wi-Fi models that rely strictly on the connectivity for justification have failed left and right, but ones that utilize other hooks, like T-Mobile’s deal with Starbucks, for example, where the real profitability comes with more coffee and not necessarily with connectivity, have been pretty successful.” Wi-Fi, like other Internet service provider options, only
provides access to a tool; it isn’t necessarily a means to an end.
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