Every time I see another story about free Wifi, I wince. I spent way too much time in the free wifi discussion and reality to read all these stories without taking it a little personally.
Read on to understand ...and to get a "scoop" on life in Jerusalem.
A little background.
Four years ago, motivated by a desire to do something good for Jerusalem, I joined up with some friends (including Mati Herbst, Shai Kavas) to create UnwireJerusalem , a grand project to bring free WiFi access to key areas of Jerusalem. First of all, we were way before our time, a good two years before our friends at Google started to make noise about free Wifi (see here for details on their Mountain View project). Our project was completely non-profit, we recruited companies such as Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), Checkpoint (NASDAQ: CHKP ), Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO ) Golden Lines (NASDAQ: SMLC )and Compumat to donate equipment, some cash, and human capital (employee time). Later on we enjoyed some support from the Jerusalem Development Authority and Boot-Net, led by Robby Leon.
When we started we had a few principles:
1. Service needed to be free for end users
2. Coverage was focused on outdoor areas
3. No dependencies on any governmental bodies
With those in mind, we approached business owners in certain areas of downtown Jerusalem, and asked them to host WiFi access points and simple ADSL modems, with all costs associated with the connections for those born by us, except for electricity. Obvious bonus for these business owners (mainly restaurants, coffee shops, etc.) was getting free WiFi in their establishments as well...
It worked out quite well, and in November 2004 we formally launched Unwire Jerusalem. Since then we have had monthly usage in the thousands, and sometimes in the tens of thousands.
Recently I took the very painful and difficult decision to pull the plug on Unwire Jerusalem...yep, we turned off the lights, yanked the plug, cut the cord. Let me try to explain why, and where I think all this (i.e. "free" internet connectivity) is headed.
1. Municipal Support
We had none. We went to literally dozens of meetings with various city officials, and not a one seemed to understand what we were doing and/or why. That we we felt a sense of civic responsibility seemed to mystify most of the city management we met with, and they constantly suspected us of a hidden agenda. Oh, some of the them said nice words, from the Mayor on down, but then completely failed to follow up or do any of what we asked for, even the most minimal. But wait, you say, wasn't one of the principles above no dependency on government? Yes, for the initial launch, but we always wanted some cooperation. And long term, yes, to get serious we needed government buy-in, if it was for public signage or even more for outdoor antenna. As we were not interested in running a municipal network, but rather a service for plain old citizens and visitors, could not get anyone to focus.
2. Business Model
We wanted to keep it free, but were also running the project as a non-profit, with a lot of big names but no major sponsor. Without a Google like backer, my friends and I could not keep up the sustained effort required to keep the network running. The basic costs are (after initial set-up and equipment) connectivity and network maintenance. Connectivity we received from 012 (local Israeli ISP) for the first 2 years as a donation. And then they wanted to be paid. We thought about rolling out all kinds of ad support, but could not find ad model that would really operate seamlessly, or that would really generate funds to cover to core operating costs. And bottom line, there was no working full time to implement such a system.
3. Need - Or, we created great momentum
When we started (4-5 years ago) there was virtually no free WiFi in Jerusalem, and as I was working out of coffee shops back then, felt it every day...Today the reality is very different. I like to think we were part of the momentum that resulted in many establishments directly sponsoring free WiFi, some like Aroma that made it a standard in any of their franchises. Pretty soon free WiFi became the norm in Jerusalem. Now, outdoor wifi is still limited, meaning if I don't want to fork over 20 shekel ($5) for a latte and a cookie, signals are going to be weak. But they are there. Especially downtown, which was our focus anyway.
4. The WOW! Factor
When we envisioned and launched Unwire Jerusalem part of our motivation was to initiate a WOW! response, to push the needle a bit on how Jerusalem was looked at -- as proud Jerusalemites we wanted to show that we are here and now. We succeeded in that, garnering massive publicity and good feeling. Together with momentum I cited above, not much more WOW! factor to milk out of this project. While possibly we should have pushed more for BOT (Build Operate Transfer)model with municipality, again, we did not want to be dragged down by that in the beginning. And at this point we have given up on the municipality. Perhaps if my good friend Nir Barkat wins the mayoral elections later this year we can revisit...
Based on the above, decided that we had accomplished what we set out to do, and I for one (and may partners in creating Unwire Jerusalem) could not justify spending more time (or money) on it, so we notified 012 to pull the plug a few days ago.
Now comes the bigger question: Does public access free wifi make sense? Well, I believe it does, just as public toilets make sense (by the way, see this April's fools initiative by Googlers...priceless! http://www.google.com/tisp/). Should local governments pay for local toilet facilities in highly trafficked areas? Sure. Could there be some ads in there? Yeah, why not, but that shouldn't be the determining factor! Consider malls, which are essentially little privately managed towns. All the malls I have been to have toilet facilities that are free to use. And the people that run malls know that they need to be there--and figure the costs into the business model of the mall.
Internet connectivity is a basic service today -- without it difficult to make your way in the world. Municipalities should do all they can to make sure that some level of "free" connectivity is in place (not only WiFi, but banks of computers for public use as well--not everyone has a laptop, no matter how cheap they are becoming).
I obviously could go on and on about this subject, having invested untold hours over the past 4-5 years. And perhaps I will write more in the future.
For now, however, want to look back on what we did with Unwire Jerusalem, smile, and thank all of those who helped along the way.