In the height of muni wireless hype, many politicians said these networks would tackle economic development by attracting new businesses, drawing more tourists, convincing college grads to come back home and retaining current business. They also predicted greater personal economic development by closing the digital divide in poor neighborhoods.
All this, of course, was when muni wireless was free. Once municipalities realized they have to pay for these networks, you don’t hear much about commercial economic development unless people are talking about wired broadband networks. And the digital divide so many times isn’t part of the discussion. Except when Meraki comes to town.
Meraki’s stealth impact on the role of muni wireless in economic development is reflected in today’s progress report on their network in S.F.
First, they did what EarthLink tried, but unfortunately failed, to do – created a citywide proof-of-concept network in a major metropolitan area by giving that network away for free. Yet Meraki is avoiding the fatal “free” business model by forcing everyone else to pay for their network.
Second, Meraki’s perfecting its sales pitch to both municipal governments and local business communities: “our network’s an investment in retail businesses that gives them a tool to increase foot traffic and purchases.” In my book, Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, I describe how Athens, GA and Philadelphia created commercial portals on the downtowns of their wireless networks and successfully boosted business. In S.F., Meraki is working in similar fashion, though leaning more toward impacting personal economic development.
Third, in Meraki’s S.F. proof of concept, they are placing quite a few installations in community centers, public housing and senior citizen facilities to help bring underserved communities into the digital age. Obviously other cities have to pay the company for similar networks, but the S.F. project shows the cost is much lower and more focused than muni wireless of yesteryear (2006).
The bottom line? In my 2007 national survey of economic development professionals, those whose cities have muni wireless found that these networks had the greater impact in the econ dev area that politicians gave their lowest priority: making local businesses more competitive and profitable. In the upcoming months, expect muni broadband (wired and wireless) that’s targeted to local existing businesses to play a big role in economic development.