The city of New Haven has tabled a proposal to join Koffee Too, Atticus Bookstore Cafe and Au Bon Pain as local providers of wireless Internet access.
For several years, the city has explored a municipal wi-fi project, which would provide public wireless Internet access to New Haven residents. But Jessica Mayorga, public information officer for the city of New Haven, said the plans to introduce municipal wi-fi have been postponed because of a shift in priorities.
“I’d say that it has been lowered as a priority,” she said. “There’s a limited amount of resources to work with. We must put our resources to areas of greater need to our residents.”
Upgrading technology for the New Haven Police Department is one example of a higher-priority expenditure, Mayorga said.
While Mayorga said the hassle of settling disputes over control of utility poles was a major reason for the project’s postponement, Michael Fumiatti, a city purchasing agent, said he thinks cost-effectiveness is the underlying issue. In theory, Fumiatti said, the city would generate income by offering wi-fi service upgrades to city residents, but he said he thinks not enough citizens would use the program for it to be profitable to the city.
“The capital outlay from the vendor would exceed what [the city] could generate as income,” Fumiatti said. “I don’t think there was enough of a customer base to substantiate the expenditure.”
Joe Paolillo, senior director of Yale’s Information Technology Services Infrastructure Group, said cities nationwide may be experiencing similar difficulties in developing sustainable municipal wi-fi services.
“I can say that it’s my understanding that a lot of municipalities have planned these,” Paolillo said. “But fewer than originally expected have proceeded with their plans.”
If the municipal wi-fi issue really is one of market dynamics, then lack of demand may be the limiting factor — many local businesses already offer free wireless Internet to customers.
Local business managers interviewed said they offer wireless Internet because it is expected of them if they want to compete with similar businesses that offer Internet.
John Gavin, manager of the three-year-old Woodland Coffee and Tea on Orange Street, said the business has offered free wi-fi since it opened its doors.
“We’re pretty much falling in line, if you want to get right down to it,” Gavin said. “We’re serving the needs of our customers.”
Tyrhonda Epps, manager of Au Bon Pain, said most business — including his restaurant — now offer wi-fi for free.
“Every other coffee shop is doing it — Koffee Too, Starbucks,” Epps said. “Our competitors are doing it.”
Paolillo said he does not think municipal wi-fi would have had a substantial effect on the Yale community.
“We thought it might have some effect for Yale students living off campus in the New Haven area that would be covered, but other than that, it would not have a significant impact,” Paolillo said.
New Haven is not the first city to attempt a public wi-fi system, nor is it the first to experience difficulties in developing and sustaining such a program.
“Wireless Philadelphia,” a city initiative to implement municipal wi-fi in the city of 1.4 million residents, has encountered year-long delays, budgetary dilemmas, failure to meet participation goals and unreliable support from its provider, Earthlink. Last week, Earthlink declared that it would consider “strategic alternatives” for its municipal wi-fi division.
Cambridge, Mass., is currently considering implementing municipal wi-fi, although it remains in the early stages of gathering information. Earlier this year, using technology adapted from the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students at the California-based Meraki Wireless Network, Cambridge tested a wireless Internet model in NewTown Court, a low-income housing development in the city.
“The test was a success, and so the city had a feasibility study done to see how much it would cost to actually deploy it across the city,” Linda Turner, project manager with the city of Cambridge IT Department, said.
Turner said the city is currently reviewing the study’s conclusions and has no specific plans to implement a wi-fi system.
Other cities, such as Durham, North Carolina, simply list local businesses that offer free wireless Internet on their municipal Web pages.
-The Associated Press contributed reporting.