Saturday, May 06, 2006

Surviving the Muni WiFi Roller Coaster

This is my column published May 5 in Fierce Wireless

There’s a crazy roller coaster ride we often endure when some new “revolutionary” technology hits the scene. First, there’s the rush of ascent as promises of “unparalleled benefits” gush forth from the marketing minions and analysts. The media picks up on the trend, anoints it The Next Big Thing and on up we race.

Then comes the rapid gut wrenching descent as average users of the technology start discovering what should have been some obvious flaws. The pundits and media pick up on this and start widespread hang wringing as we’ve seen recently with negative media coverage after muni WiFi networks went live in Tempe, AZ and St. Cloud, FL. Poor San Francisco has become a disgruntlement dart board and they haven’t even signed a contract.

Let’s level out this roller before we get emotional whiplash. Here are some lessons for those actively participating in, or following with interest, these muni wireless initiatives. Vendors, consultants and service providers. You have as much responsibility as cities do to encourage putting these into action. You’re profits are riding this same roller coaster.

Lesson 1 - Don’t allow others to declare your network a flop. Remind people why you’re building the network. Of the four primary reasons cities deploy municipal networks – government use, digital inclusion, economic development, general public wireless Internet access - providing cheap access is the least financially defensible. Yet, it is continually the tail that wags the dog, particularly with this being an election year in many municipalities.

St. Cloud’s original business case for owning the network rested on cost savings to be generated by using the network to increase mobile city workers’ efficiency and productivity. The money that would otherwise go to hiring new employees to handle increasing workloads by itself is enough to offset annual network operations costs.

Cities would do well to shift discussions in the media away from whether or not people are having trouble getting coverage in their homes, and focus on how the network is impacting government work. From day one, the purpose of Philly’s network is to increase digital inclusion and economic development. The measure of their success should be how lives and businesses are being helped in disadvantaged communities.

Lesson 2 Better manage expectations. Early feedback about Tempe’s deployment criticized people’s inability to get coverage everywhere. But go back and review public proclamations by politicians, vendors and others when Tempe announced they were going to deploy. You see the problem right away. Officials wrote, or allowed others to write, expectation checks that the bank of technology reality can’t cover.

In the beginning all you heard was “first in the nation,” “wireless everywhere,” “free for everyone.” But did they talk about needing signal boosters in homes to get better coverage? Were there warnings that the technology will take a few months after going live to get the bugs worked out? Often, government officials just don’t understand the technology or its limitations.

Unless and until cities realize that poorly managed expectations pave the road to eventual constituent backlash, the minute you go live there’s going to be hell to pay. And the whole world will read about it. It doesn’t matter if the network is “free.” or owned and operated by a private company. When people are pumped on expectations that the network or the business relationship with the vendor cannot deliver, bad things will happen.

Lesson 3 - People, reign in your politicians. This is an election year for many municipalities. “Free municipal WiFi for everyone” is a great hook upon which to hang a few political hopes. It’s the 21st century version of the 1928 promise of “a chicken in every pot.”

However, broadband wireless is too complex, citywide WiFi is too new and examples of cities doing it right” are too few for the technology to live up to campaign promises, or conform to the timeline of the campaign season. Most politicians know too little about technology and care too much about looking good for voters to drive key initiatives.

Use the mayor to get the initiative off the ground, bring them out occasionally to maintain its momentum, and have them show up to take final bows when the network goes live. But have the CIO or someone in IT out front leading the public discussion. Or have a multi-constituent steering committee drive setting expectations. However, if you have someone like Philly’s Mayor Street who is a gadget freak, technology literate and not running for re-election or higher office, they’re less likely to be a loose cannon.

Lesson 4 – Find a PR strategist. No, not a press secretary, not a spin doctor. Get someone who knows how to craft messages, position products or services, keep people in various parts of the government on the same page with those messages and build consensus among constituent groups.

Hundreds of municipalities are about to roll out a major new technology solution that’s going significantly alter how business gets done in those cities. In a local way, treat initiatives the way Microsoft, IBM, Palm and others treat their products. Build anticipation, set realistic expectations, educate the market. There are enemies of muni WiFi who will broadcast every flaw and scar. Cities and their supporters must drive the public discussion, not their enemies.

Lesson 5 – Maintain transparency with those whom the network is supposed to serve. If it’s not careful, San Francisco could become an embarrassing footnote in the short history of muni WiFi as the only city initiative to be temporarily derailed by the technology’s main supporters. Regardless of the reality, S.F. is perceived locally to have acted hastily, with disregard to community needs and wishes, inspired by political cronyism and without any credible amount of technology due diligence.

From pre-RFP to post network deployment, any city that’s serious about using muni wireless to improve government and/or the lives of its constituents must have a transparent and responsive implementation process. As Mayor Street advises in my book, “conducting this initiative transparently and in the public...will go a long way towards helping to build consensus among different groups and constituencies.”