Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Welcome DHB Wireless to Longmont

Tonight, the Longmont City Council unanimously signed over the contracts previously negotiated with the now-defunct Kite Networks (in Longmont, anyway) to Dublin, Ohio-based DHB Networks. I thought the president of DHB, Christopher Harris, did a very good job of explaining their vision of municipal wireless, while at the same time, maintaining a cost-conscious perspective of always staying cash-flow positive.

So what, you ask, why is this a big deal? A solid municipal wifi provider is always a good hedge against the big carriers giving you high-speed internet through DSL or Cable. If you've had a customer service problem previously with the giants, you'll appreciate having a alternative that you can turn to, or even use as a supplement. In addition, a municipal wifi network could serve to attract new businesses to the area, especially those that value mobile employees.

The most difficult part of running a municipal wifi network, in my opinon? Easy: providing good customer service. The residential computing industry is still in its infant stages at best, with shaky hardware, buggy and un-intuitive operating systems (software), constant malware/virus propogation, fluid wireless standards (802.de jour), and chock-full of geeky vocabulary like "drivers", "ESSID", hexadecimal keys, and "WEP". With all of this chaos, ask yourself how long a DHB-contracted customer service representative should stay on the phone with valued customers like Aunt Lilly or Uncle Bob when they can't connect their PC to the network, to retrieve that important photo or when their 10th grader can't fetch that important homework assignment due tomorrow. How many minutes do you spend with them on the phone, talking them through multiple reboots and wireless card re-seats before you make the other folks waiting in queue angry? On the other hand, turning Aunt Lilly away without fixing her problem will surely not keep her a as a customer for long. Remember that Kite Networks ultimately failed here because they couldn't negotiate a contract with a new customer service company. It does take savvy and trained people on the other side of the phone to deal with the techno-chaos mentioned above, and they probably want to be paid more than a Tier-1 rep that just reads a script.

In the past month, there have been news articles that have made national scope about the City of Longmont potentially buying and operating the Kite network themselves. Regulatory issues aside, the City would have needed to assess how to deal with the customer service hand-handholding problem mentioned above. I'm glad they chose not to pursue this path as I do not think they have the resources to deal with it.

Contrast the municipal wifi situation with the residential electricity utility industry where the electric company provides constant alternating current to your house, and your appliances, built on years of standards, just plug in and work. How many times do you call Longmont Power because your toaster isn't working today?

Note that the customer service problem is not a lost cause. It actually creates business opportunities for those skilled in residential wireless setup and support, including DHB themselves. There will be households that are willing to pay for such support, just as they would pay for a plumber or electrician. There could also be a coordinated community effort where volunteers assist those less technically-inclined with their connectivity issues.

Welcome again DHB and I hope Longmont can become a showcase community for you.

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