WiFi Mesh Mess

Some time ago I compared public Wi-Fi hotspots to public restrooms: functional yet unkept dirty locked water access points of last resort. My view over the last five years hasn’t changed much. I have frequently used both public and fee-based hotspots both in the US and abroad and in many cases they have been life savers but too often they have been a disappointment. Often they have been unbearably slow but it was my access technology of last resort.

For the past three or so years I also have watched in amazement so many peoples’ euphoria over metro-wide Wi-Fi efforts. Of course most recently both Philadelphia and San Francisco have been in the news with well publicized efforts. Just earlier this week I also saw that Rhode Island is pushing to be the first state to have universal coverage for all it’s residents. We won’t tell anyone they’re smaller than Los Angeles. And of course my favorite announcements are those from smaller towns where inevitably a city council-person will tout how this new Wi-Fi network will increase the city’s competitiveness for high-tech jobs. Give me a break.

The good news out of all this is that yesterday I finally discovered my metaphor to explain why the large majority of public metro Wi-Fi networks will die a slow neglected death. Look no further this upcoming Memorial Day weekend than your city’s public pool.

What’s the difference between the public pool and one in your own in the backyard? Tons. While I don’t have one these days we’ve been lucky several times to have had one. When I was a kid growing up in California we had a backyard pool. It was great .. no it was awesome. The summer I turned 12 we moved back to Kansas and I got my first experience with a public pool.

You know what? It was functional yet uncared dirty locked-up water of last resort. It was so crowded I couldn’t hardly swim, the food was expensive and you didn’t have any privacy. Having come from having our own pool it was an absolutely miserable experience.

Why will metro Wi-Fi suffer slow and sporadic adoption struggling to find a profitable business model? For nearly 100% of the folks likely to use these networks they have already become accustomed to their own (higher speed) private connection to the net. And current high speed internet in my house is relatively cheap, reliable and secure. Metro Wi-Fi will be for occasional connections of last resort - not universal access for the masses.

Some even speculate that even if all this is worked out, metro Wi-Fi networks will still fail being unable to reliably work once we see real-life usage patterns and traffic. Today only a handful of folks use them; low adoption is not surprising for so many reasons.

What am I going to do this Memorial Day weekend? Try to score an invite to my buddy’s house. Blaine has his own pool.