CHICAGO -- Plans to blanket cities across the nation with low-cost or free wireless Internet access are being delayed or abandoned because they are proving to be too costly and complicated.
Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities are putting proposed Wi-Fi networks on hold.
"Wi-Fi woes everywhere you turn," says Russell Hancock of Silicon Valley Network, a troubled Wi-Fi project for 40 towns in California's high-tech corridor.
Wi-Fi allows laptop users to work anywhere, making some jobs portable. It also is essential to mobile devices, including iPhones, enabling such emerging technology to perform complex online tasks fast.
Chicago couldn't reach agreement with service providers after offering free use of street lamps for radio transmitters in exchange for a network built, owned and operated by providers at no cost to the city.
"All these big city projects were doomed to failure because they were too complicated," says Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Networking News. Service providers, he says, want city governments to sign up as long-term customers to offset costs. Wi-Fi can help police, firefighters and inspectors access information quickly.
Some cities, including San Francisco, hoped to provide free service for most users offset by ad revenue. Others, such as Springfield, Ill., wanted to give free service to low-income residents and charge everyone else competitive rates. Minneapolis charges about $20 a month.
"It's too soon to say" what Chicago will do next, chief information officer Hardik Bhatt says. The city decided that decreasing consumer demand and competition mean Wi-Fi might not succeed without a big city investment.
EarthLink, one company negotiating with Chicago, is scaling back its Wi-Fi business. "We will not devote any new capital to the old municipal Wi-Fi model that has us taking all the risk," CEO Rolla Huff said last month. "That model is simply unworkable." EarthLink's announcement also derailed citywide Wi-Fi in San Francisco and Houston.
•Cincinnati shelved its plan last week for a citywide network because the market is too unstable.
•The Silicon Valley plan for free Wi-Fi is at risk after providers decided local governments must be "anchor tenants" for the service.
•Springfield, Ill., is looking for another partner after AT&T dropped Wi-Fi plans last month.
•St. Louis is trying to figure out how to power Wi-Fi transmitters on 1,700 street lights when they're not illuminated without spending millions of dollars.
There are successes. Minneapolis is installing its system in phases. By next year, Oakland County, Mich., plans to offer Wi-Fi to 400,000 customers. "Everybody needs the Internet," Deputy County Executive Phil Bertolini says, "and we want it available to everyone."