Muni WiFi still has utility, and at least two utilities

Originally, it was just the poles in Chaska that had a retro look.

The first generation of municipal wireless providers is mostly gone, as fiber takes precedence and mobile networks grow. One of the survivors deserves particular mention: the City of Chaska, Minnesota.

I visited Chaska several times in the course of building and running a similar WiFi-based broadband utility in Lompoc, California. Chaska’s project led ours by a few months and the lessons learned there saved us time, money and a lot of trouble. Not that we didn’t make plenty of our own mistakes learning opportunities.

Chaska used the original Tropos mesh WiFi network technology to blast a signal throughout the city, with the expectation of serving people inside their homes and businesses. It was a logical upgrade to the existing dial-up service the city offered to residents.

With no DSL or cable modem service – a common situation ten years ago – the kilobit-class service WiFi could deliver over a wide area was a killer advantage. By building on its existing dial-up base, grew to more than two thousand paid subscribers, which represented about a quarter of the city’s households. We never came close to that take-rate in Lompoc, and I don’t know of any muni WiFi system that did.

As wired and mobile infrastructure was built out in cities and WiFi’s serious limitations as a carrier-class technology became clear, muni wireless turned into an amenity for most people, although it remains a lifeline for some. Unlike most of their contemporaries, both Chaska and Lompoc are 1. still in business and 2. charge a fee for service. Maybe not for much longer, though.

With the subscriber count at a still impressive 1,400, Chaska has to choose between a multi-million upgrade or pulling back. Maybe even shut down WiFi service altogether. But it’ll still be in a broadband business it pioneered: it was running a muni fiber network before fiber was cool, and that’s going strong.