Technology Report: Wi Not?

There's a lot of talk these days about municipal Wi-Fi—city-sponsored wireless Internet networks made available to the public at low or no cost. So far, more than 250 local governments have deployed or are planning to deploy municipal Wi-Fi, according to Muniwireless.com's 2006 Annual Report. Many already use such systems for government business and public safety use only, and are exploring ways to expand those networks or build others to be available to the general public. Of course, the companies who currently sell the service at market rates balk at this prospect, but proponents of municipal Wi-Fi insist the service can bridge the so-called digital divide by making Internet access more affordable for more people.

There are many practical and technical issues surrounding the adoption of municipal Wi-Fi, including download speed and network security, as well as whether the service should be free (advertiser-supported) or subscriber-based. Wi-Fi proponents hope these issues will be resolved by the large Internet companies, including Google and Earthlink, who are working with cities to develop municipal service. These companies are in many ways driving the municipal Wi-Fi effort: Technology heavyweight Intel Corporation's Digital Communities initiative is designed to help 13 cities in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America develop municipal Wi-Fi.

For meetings, low- or no-cost Wi-Fi also has the potential to make on-site life easier—both for planners and attendees. But will it drive destination choices? Perhaps. "I'm sure I'd choose a city for location, not for [wireless Internet] access," says Los Angeles-based independent meeting planner Deborah Shadovitz. But, Shadovitz adds, municipal Wi-Fi could go a long way in distinguishing one potential meeting destination from another. "If there are several towns that are all somewhat equal and meeting facilities that meet my needs in each, the free Wi-Fi could well be the deciding factor," she says.

This map shows some of the cities that currently support municipal Wi-Fi and some of those that are working to introduce it.