The San Francisco Chronicle reports on Google's launch of a free municipal WiFi network for its home town of Mountain View, California, with MetroFi providing the "tubes" for the system covering its 72,000 residents. A Google ID and password are required to log in to the free system, a strong motivation for people to provide profiles to Google that will activate a widening range of value-add services such as personalization, mail, messaging and ecommerce. Google sees this as a lever to accelerate rolling out similar services in San Francisco, a strategy that will make a Google login a "must-have" for Web users on the go in wired municipalities.
Google claims it has no plans to put an additional layer of ads to monetize their wireless plans, seeing the additional eyeballs for its existing ad services a good enough revenue driver that supports its mission of universal access. This will work in some locales such as Silicon Valley where Web access is considered a birthright by many. But what about the far-flung corners of the earth where public funding for such ventures may be a little shaky? As the showcasing phase of this project progresses, there will need to be a firmer value proposition offered to municipalities for providing services of a high enough quality to justify an investment in free access. In New York City there are islands of free access that are oftentimes highly overcrowded with users and prone to hackers: with more solid funding of access through optional supplementary ad layers Google could provide towns and cities with the ability to choose how they want to finance free WiFi to the point where we begin to have truly universal access.
Don't expect this to be the last word in what Google will do to move forward with WiFi support, especially should media-conscious carriers begin to make competitive offers to municipalities. It's kind of ironic that the old AOL model has been turned on its head to provide a universal login centered around the world's content rather than a proprietary set of databases - something that the telecoms carriers are having are hard time accepting as well. With Google's increasing abilities to contexualize and localize ads for its users, they have everything to gain from its universal access efforts. Just think of all of those coupons that they just launched through Google Maps - what a kick to be able to log in to Google right in front of a store where you can use their coupon! Early days, to be sure, but the mission of universal access could be just what Main Street/High Street needs to get a shot in the arm.