Trouble in Wi-Fi

The first city-wide Wi-Fi network - St. Cloud, Fla.'s 15-square-mile installation - is frustrating users with spotty, often nonexistent service. Haven't these people ever heard of "beta?"

All's not so great in Wi-Fi land. The AP reports that the first city-wide Wi-Fi network - St. Cloud, Fla.'s 15-square-mile installation - is frustrating users with spotty, often nonexistent service.

Joe Lusardi's friends back in New York couldn't believe it when he told them he'd have free Internet access through this city's new Wi-Fi network. ''Everybody's happy they were going to have it, but I don't know if they're happy right now,'' said Lusardi, a 66-year-old retired New York City transit worker.

... So far, there have been plenty of calls from frustrated residents. Some can see receivers from their homes and still can't sign on -- even on the porch. Others have tried to connect countless times.... At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors. Even then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per month Sprint DSL service.

Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the idea of dropping his pay service and using the network. ''It's just total frustration,'' Lusardi said. ''I'm going to stay with the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work. Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say it's underutilized and they're going to shut it down.''

Enter the next phase of muni Wi-Fi: managing expectations. Wi-Fi consultant Glenn Fleischman said people need to understand additional equipment to pick up wireless signals.

''It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit some of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is out there,'' he said. ''Products have to catch up to this new market.''

Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems -- in bigger cities, even larger ones -- if they didn't fully inform the public of necessary equipment and network limits.

At the end of the day, says former city commissioner Chuck Cooper, muni Wi-Fi is kind of like the early days of cellphones. "You used to have a lot of dropped calls, but now they're substantially better. Hopefully, this will get a little better a lot quicker.''

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