Research Director, IDC Government Insights
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Senior Research Analyst, EMEA Telecoms and Networking
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Demand for funding through the European Commission’s WiFi4EU program demonstrates that there is still considerable interest for WiFi in public spaces by municipalities.
Yet, cities have struggled to develop business use cases to support investment past proof-of-concept stages. Improvements in the underlying technology and the corresponding ability to connect a growing number of devices are helping to broaden the range of potential business models and use cases, so is the time right for cities to once again invest in WiFi in public spaces?
Bridging the Funding and Technology Gap
Cities’ interest in WiFi is nothing new, and early examples can be found dating back more than 20 years when the first cities started to experiment with providing access to public services across narrowly defined geographic areas. However, many of the original schemes failed or were scaled back significantly due to a series of challenges ranging from cost to poor quality. The issue of cost is a perennial one for cities. While cities have big budgets, discretionary items such as public WiFi programs have in recent years been scaled back in response to the tight fiscal environment, limiting deployments to public buildings. Adding to the complexity is the fragmented nature of budgets, making it difficult to secure long-term support. Also, if and when the solution is launched and set up, municipalities face the problem with its support because very often there is a lack of internal IT skills and outsourcing the support to a third party puts additional pressure on the budgets.
Recently though there have been moves to inject new investment through schemes such as the European Commission’s WiFi4EU project. While the scheme provides investment to kick-start municipalities’ plans, with each award worth roughly €15,000, the challenge of securing longer-term funding is still a complex issue.
Developing support requires cities to develop new business models that will see them use WiFi to address more complex issues. Combining WiFi deployments as part of wider programs makes it easier to justify the cost and opens up avenues to engage with different budget holders. To date the technical limitations of WiFi have meant that cities have struggled to use it in support of more than a handful of use cases, the bulk of which revolve around access to online services for citizens. Development of the next evolution of WiFi standards, WiFi 6, will provide improvements in speeds and latency, with support for higher density of connected devices. It is also likely to have lower costs to deploy, maintain, and manage — making it an attractive solution for cities. The range of use cases that can be applied to WiFi in public spaces is expanding as cities start to adopt Internet of Things (IoT) and autonomous devices services.
Partnering for Success
Utilizing connectivity solutions such as WiFi to provide access to digital services is a core part of many municipalities’ journey to becoming a smart city. As the cost of providing the infrastructure continues to decrease, vendors are developing additional services that wrap around the underlying infrastructure, such as improved management tools, more detailed analytics on use and devices, and the use of automation to move from reactive to proactive operation and fault management of services.
For municipalities this means they will need to work toward understanding how access technologies are evolving and what this means in terms of future use cases that can help to financially support the rollout of WiFi across public spaces. For vendors there will no doubt be opportunities to help municipalities by identifying other parties that are also deploying access in public spaces and helping to bridge gaps in coverage between other connectivity services. However, this will require the development of commercial arrangements to suit all parties. Which brings us back round to funding.
Choosing the Right Solution
Despite the use case that public WiFi is used for, municipalities should wisely choose the technical solution. Very often municipalities don’t have a clear picture of what the whole smart ecosystem will look like in several years. Thus, the choice of interoperable solution is vital. Many vendors and partners create platforms that enable them to seamlessly integrate any new use cases into the larger ecosystem and avoid rip and replace practice and hence avoid budget overspend. Vendors such as Ruckus (Commscope), Aruba/HPE, Cisco, Nokia, and Huawei are all proponents of gradual development. To provide municipalities with the right solution, vendors are working closely with a myriad of partners from service providers to EU regulatory bodies. Vendors are constantly working on improving not only the functionality of their products but also the look, as in European cities that are closely watched by UNESCO and other heritage institutions the appearance of any technology and its ability to blend into the surroundings is imperative.