Miami Beach spending $5 million for spotty Wi-Fi

The announcement came in October with much ado and a "wire cutting" outside Miami Beach City Hall.

"We are the first in the country to have a free citywide hotspot," City Manager Jorge Gonzalez crowed to the Miami Herald.

Well, Jorge, there might be a good reason for that.

After a more than three-year delay and $5 million signed away, Miami Beach's Wi-Fi project is still spotty at best. Signals are strong in high-traffic public areas, but if you live on the Beach, good luck trying to join the network in your condo or back yard.

Even worse, technology experts wonder why a city needs free Wi-Fi in the age of web-browsing phones. That's exactly why pretty much every other metropolis in America dropped their plans of going wireless in the early 2000s.

"Everyone today is walking around with smartphones with 3G and iPhones," says Glenn Fleishman, a freelance technology writer for Wi-Fi Net News. "There's a really marginal audience who want public Wi-Fi and don't have access to an alternate method."

Way back in 2004, when the Miami Beach City Commission first floated plans for a citywide wireless project, the whole thing seemed like a pretty cool, futuristic idea.

The Herald swooned, calling it "one of the most important projects to impact Miami Beach's future since BayLink, the proposed... light rail system." Hmmm, that one didn't turn out so well either, guys.

In 2006, the commission approved a $5 million contract with IBM to create the network. Under the deal, 95 percent of the city should have had free Wi-Fi by 2007.

That didn't happen. The problem: Ironically, creating a wireless network requires a hell of a lot of wires. To get a strong signal across one square mile, you need about 60 wireless signal nodes, says Fleishman.

"That's a lot of real estate to cover," he says. "Most cities decided it just wasn't practical."

Making matters worse for the Beach, city officials struggled to get permission from FPL and the Florida Department of Transportation to mount wireless nodes on thier utility poles.

Still, it's not at all clear today whether 95 percent of outdoor Miami Beach or 70 percent of indoor spaces are actually covered, as the city promises.

This writer, for instance, lives near 16th Street and Meridian Avenue and couldn't find a signal inside his apartment, in his back yard, in his front yard, or on Meridian. A quick tour around South Beach found good signals on Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive but no connection at South Pointe Park.

"We are still in the testing period," says Hilda Fernandez, the assistant city manager. "If we find blocked areas, we can go to IBM to let them know."

Fernandez and others defend the program, noting that city workers — including police and code compliance officers — are now able to tap into the network on the job. And Patricia Walker, who's overseeing the project for the city, says more than 16,500 people have signed up to use wireless since October. "It's absolutely a great idea," says Commissioner Michael Gongora, "though I know many residents are still waiting for it to be fully operational."

Including Gongora. The commissioner says his third-floor apartment near 50th Street and Collins Avenue doesn't get a signal. The city provided Wi-Fi for only second stories and below — a curious omission in a city where half the population lives in condos or apartments with multiple stories, Gongora notes.

"Now that time has gone by and it's still not fully operational, maybe we should ask whether to stick with this," he concedes.

But at the end of the month, the city expects to finalize a six-year contract in place with IBM to keep the network running. So enjoy the Wi-Fi if you find yourself with a laptop on Lincoln Road — and you don't want Starbucks, McDonald's, or any of the other half-dozen wireless options.

"It was a good idea five years ago. Now, not so much," Fleishman says.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink