WiFi and wireless

AT&T and the iPhone

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/29/2008 - 15:19

AT&T, perhaps partly by accident, has probably created success story that is likely to become a business textbook case study classic. Its partnership with Apple has succeeded beyond the company's wildest dreams. Once a kind of also-ran in the cellular industry, customers are switching in droves to AT&T just to get an iPhone. And AT&T has wisely beefed up its network and is making massive investments to ensure its customers have a good signal in more places.

The iPhone is creating a majro change in the portable device and cellphone business, and I think the day of the cellphone is over, meaning that within five years, very few people will have a portable device that is primarily a phone. Going forward, every portable device will have to have a substantial feature set that provides many of the same functions and features of the iPhone.

Apple is probably not greatly worried, as the iPhone's potential is just now barely beginning to be tapped. The iPhone runs a version of the company's flagship OS X operating system, meaning iPhones are full-fledged computers, not just phones with a few extra features like an address book wedged in.

Driving while surfing

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/25/2008 - 12:31

We already have too many people driving around with cellphones glued to their ears, not paying attention (clue: driving seven miles under the speed limit, wandering back and forth across the lane). Now Chrysler has announced they are building in support for WiFi in some of their automobiles. Great....now we'll have people driving while talking AND watching YouTube at the same time.

Not enough fiber for wireless services

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/13/2008 - 13:16

Sprint's new WiMax initiative with partner Clearwire is stalling because the high capacity wireless access points don't work very well when backhaul (the connection from the wireless radios/antennas is over old-fashioned copper phone lines.

Do the math....

If Sprint/Clearwire is promising 3-6 megabits per user over a wireless connection and the copper phone line feeding it is a T1 line (1.5 megabits), customers are going to be very disappointed. Clearwire may become a valuable customer of communities that are building out fiber networks.

Is Clearwire the mobile wireless solution?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/13/2008 - 09:06

Clearwire has announced plans to operate its proposed national WiMax network as an open access system, and major players like Sprint, Comcast, and Time Warner have apparently already agreed to become resellers on the network. It will be interesting to see how this turns out, as an enormous investment will be required to build the national infrastructure required to meet the promised goals. One of the backers of Clearwire is Sprint, which is losing cellular marketshare rapidly, and may regard Clearwire as its last chance to keep from being broken up and sold.

A national wireless network makes sense only if the operator truly operates it as open. The dangerous part of the proposal is that Clearwire can make any rules it wants, and can change them anytime it likes. If most of the U.S. ends up relying on a single network owner for mobile access, is that a good thing? Again, it *could* work, if competitive service providers truly get treated equally.

Note also that the article talks about very realistic bandwidth projections of 6 megabits down and 3 megabits up for the WiMax system--excellent for mobile access but that kind of bandwidth won't support much video or other high bandwidth, multimedia services, like movie downloads, live HD events, and videoconferencing. We'll still want and need fiber to the premise (FTTP).

Wireless is not a complete solution

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/11/2008 - 08:35

Every year about this time, I write about wireless. I'm at the beach, and have to use the local wireless service. It works great at 6 AM, when no one else is up, but once all the other people in the neighborhood start logging on, the service gets slower and slower. Wireless is a shared medium, like cable modem service. A wireless access node with, for example, 20 megabits of bandwidth, shares that bandwidth among all users. So if you have 20 users on at the same time, each one effectively gets only about 1 megabit--or less, if one of those users is trying to download video or music.

Wireless and cable modem work moderately well today because fortunately, not everyone connected to a cable node or wireless access point is doing something at the same time. You are not using any bandwidth while you are reading a Web page or your email. The fly in the ointment is our ever increasing demand for video and multimedia, which use hundreds of times the bandwidth of email and Web pages. Trying to download a Netflix two hour movie over your cable modem or wireless connection may grab most of the available bandwidth, making everyone else's access, for a few minutes or even an hour, very, very slow.

All network architectures, even the "Internet," rely on sharing to some extent. But at the local level--neighborhoods and communities--shared bandwidth can be a challenge. As more of get connected, we will do more locally, and that means better networks, designed to minimize the effects of shared bandwidth. As always, we end up needing fiber as part of the solution.

Tempe muni wireless falls short

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/25/2008 - 13:32

Tempe, Arizona's foray into community and municipal wireless has not worked out as expected. Like many other communities that have tried the same thing and have also failed, Tempe tried to avoid spending any money. They simply granted an untested wireless firm access to city lightpoles and structures for wireless equipment. The private firm had to bear the entire cost of build out. The wireless system was also not seen as reliable as a wired system, and the wireless firm has not been able to attract many subscribers.

The lesson learned is that there is no free lunch for community broadband. Communities that spend very little are getting very little in return, and if all of the risk is left in the private sector, the private sector won't come or won't stay long. Another lesson is that building out without a solid business plan to attract customers is also a non-starter. The right approach is to target underserved areas and/or to be able to offer innovative services that are not already available from other providers.

Wireless requires a business plan

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/16/2008 - 08:10

"Free wireless" is beginning to look a lot like "free lunch" -- it may not be possible. The City of Hartford, Connecticut embarked two years ago on an ambitious plan to provide free wireless service to large portions of the city. After two years and $800,000, there is little to show.

The Hartford project appears to be having difficulties similar to other early community wireless efforts: unjustified optimism about the ability of wireless signals to penetrate apartment and office buildings filled with steel reinforcement, and the lack of a business plan that provides for long term sustainability of the system.

In some quarters, there have been pronouncements that private sector wireless is not working (i.e. public/private partnerships), and that the only way to go is an all muni free or very low fee system. But it is not the nature of the partnership that is the core issue--it is the nature of the business model, which can be public, private, or a public/private partnership. Any of those can work and work well with the right business model.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Community broadband and community wireless projects are going to be very important to the economic future of many U.S. towns and cities, but it is not who owns it that determines success, it is whether or not the owners have a sustainable business plan.

WiMax and wireless need fiber

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/08/2008 - 10:28

This article provides another example of the "no free lunch" principle as it applies to community wireless. Sprint is having trouble rolling out its WiMax service offering because of backhaul costs (you need fiber to the towers to provide adequate bandwidth) and subscribers are getting about 4 megabits of bandwidth--exactly what I was hearing years ago from knowledgeable wireless experts.

WiMax is an excellent set of technologies that will eventually replace most WiFi, but wireless is only a partial solution for community broadband.

No free lunch for muni wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/24/2008 - 08:52

This New York Times article makes it clear that there is no free lunch for municipal wireless. There are still a lot of communities pursuing initiatives that cling to the idea that they can get a wireless provider to come in a build an extensive wireless network for free. These kinds of efforts have been and continue to fail, due to cost overruns, poor performance, and the lack of business-class services. Wireless is necessary as a mobile access technology, but it is not sufficient. Communities contemplating broadband investments should start with a careful planning effort that identifies the business and financial model early, before spending money on equipment.

Is WiMax the silver bullet?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/24/2008 - 08:47

An Australian wireless ISP who has operated a WiMax network for more than a year unleashed a blistering attack on the protocol, calling it a "disaster" and that it "failed miserably." Unfortunately, the article provides little detail on exactly what frequencies were used (WiMax is a catch all term for the protocol, which can use several different chunks of frequency spectrum). The interesting thing about the comments is that the firm is planning to deploy more traditional WiFi as part of their wireless network. This article illustrates that wireless systems are not a panacea, and that they have to designed and engineered carefully to get good performance.

"A future without wires ... sadly mistaken"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/17/2008 - 08:27

Christopher Mitchel of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has written an article in the current issue of Broadband Properties. It is an excellent analysis of municipal and community broadband that presents a compelling argument that only integrated wireless andfiber community/municipal networks are going to be able to support the kinds of applications and services needed, especially services needed to support businesses and economic development.

Here is a key quote:

Those who expect a future without wires are sadly mistaken. Existing wireless networks are perfectly adequate for voice, email, or Internet surfing, but their limitations preclude high quality videophone applications and other bandwidth-intensive applications

Mitchell argues, as I and others have, that wireless is a necessary component of any community or municipal broadband effort, but that wireless will evolve (as it already is doing) into primarily a conduit for mobile access to services. Fiber will be required in virtually all residences and businesses because video in all its forms will need the very high capacity that fiber offers.

Read the whole thing; it is well worth printing out and distributing to others who are interested in community broadband.

Wireless vulnerabilities

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/18/2008 - 08:50

This moderately technical article (PDF file) has an extensive discussion of the vulnerabilities of wireless systems, including WiFi, Bluetooth, and WiMax. Communities interested in investing primarily in wireless broadband should read this article first, as the data presented illustrates why most businesses do not regard wireless as a business class service.

Here is a short summary of the issues from the article:

Wireless networks have three additional aspects that make the security of wireless
networks even more challenging than the security of fixed networks:

Wireless networks are always open – Physical media does not protect them. Any device
that implements the same radio interface can access a wireless network. One common
assumption is that wireless technologies are secure when authentication and encryption
are properly deployed. Looking closely at the operation of related protocols, there are
many message sequences that take place before the authentication. These message
sequences can always be attacked regardless of the deployed security measures.
Attacks are not limited by location or distance.

Attacks are not limited by location or distance. The distance from where the attacker can
reach the wireless network is only limited by the power of the transmitter. For example,
Bluetooth attack tools are known to have several-mile radiuses, although valid usage
scenarios would never attempt such range of coverage for Bluetooth.

Attackers are always anonymous. Although a valid user can be pinpointed with good
accuracy, an attacker can use directed antennas that will only target a selected victim. It is impossible to guarantee detection of malicious users in wireless networks. As stated
above, an attacker can also always attack the message sequences that happen before the
authentication of the device and thus avoid identification.

AT&T opens its network

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/07/2007 - 08:10

Unlike the rest of the world, cellphones in the U.S. only work on the network for which they were originally purchased, and we have always had to buy the phones from the cellular provider. In Europe, for example, you can walk into almost any store and buy a cheap cellphone and then activate it for use on the network of your choice.

AT&T has announced that they are now taking the same approach on their GSM network in the U.S. This has apparently been an option for a while, but the company has never publicized it.

The one exception to this is the iPhone, which works only on the AT&T network. iPhone users will not be able to get their phone unlocked so it could be taken to another network.

Oddly enough, AT&T's new openness is probably due in part to the success of the iPhone. AT&T's new popularity as a cellular provider has been lifting out of last place in the U.S. cellular market, and the company probably sees this as an opportunity to bring even more customers--many of whom may not want an iPhone.

Wireless spectrum fights

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/01/2007 - 08:47

Fights over WiMax spectrum are slowing deployment of WiMax. The FCC, which manages the WiMax spectrum, has been renewing the existing spectrum, called EBS (Educational Broadband Services). The problem is that the EBS spectrum licenses, in many cases, belong to local educational institutions. Sprint wants to build a national WiMax network and thinks that the FCC should require the schools not using the spectrum to give it up.

To make things more confusing, Clearwire, another WiMax provider, has taken the route of simply negotiating licenses directly with the schools, who make some money from something many of them were not using.

The end result will be extensive overbuilding of WiMax networks, which raises costs and makes it more difficult for users to roam from network to network. Wireless broadband operators have never been able to work out roaming agreements the way the cellular industry did. Cellphones did not become popular until roaming agreements were in place, meaning your phone would work pretty much everywhere. Today, in most airports, as one example, there are often two to five WiFi providers, and paying for service on one operator's network does not let you roam on any other operator's network.

The bigger problem here is overbuilding. With several different companies all trying to build wireless broadband networks in a community, costs go up for all users because of duplication of infrastructure. The solution is for the community to build a multi-service network that allows multiple providers to use a single network. Users gain the benefits of true competition, and prices are lower because there is no duplication of infrastructure. The FCC could play a valuable role here by encouraging the development of multi-service networks, but instead, continues to try to put band-aids on outmoded policies.

Ownership has advantages

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/17/2007 - 08:24

Even as some municipal wireless projects are falling apart, many other communities are still pursuing the risky "direct to vendor" approach. Instead of identifying broader community goals and needs first and then selecting systems and technology that support those goals, community leaders are going straight to a vendor and letting the vendor specify what the community should buy.

These "solutions" are typically expensive wireless systems, offered to the community in some kind of bundled business deal. There are two common approaches. The first is that the local government buys an expensive wireless system, usually with a combination of public safety wireless and data wireless (WiFi) for residential and business use. The second model is that the wireless firm builds the network but obtains a lucrative long term contract from the local government for public safety wireless and usually some WiFi services for government agencies.

There are two problems with this direct to vendor model. The first is that what a single vendor offers may or may not be well aligned with the long term community and economic development goals of the town or county. As an example, wireless (WiFi) is not a business class service and does little to help with economic development.

The second problem is that the vendor ends up deciding the economic future of the community, not the community itself. It is as if water and sewer were managed privately, and the water and sewer vendor gets to decide when and where water and sewer lines will be be upgraded or added. If the company decides it is not profitable to make such upgrades, the community is out of luck if said upgrades are needed to retain existing businesses or to attract new ones.

Local leaders are handing the keys to their community's economic future to a third party; they are doing so in part because they don't feel competent to make technology decisions. But the solution is to educate local leaders on how to make wise decisions, rather than avoiding them altogether. In fact, communitywide fiber and wireless systems are less expensive and less complicated than your average community sewer system.

Design Nine provides seminars designed specifically for community leaders and economic developers, and provides technology advice for communities that is technology neutral.

YAWDS: Yet Another Wireless Disaster Story

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 09/09/2007 - 16:39

Yet another muni WiFi project has foundered on the rocks of NoBusinessModel. WiFi vendors don't mind overselling the benefits of free WiFi, because their business model usually involves getting the local government to take all the risk. In some cases, local governments are putting up hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for WiFi systems that have yet to prove themselves.

In other cases, the service provider may put up most of the equipment, but gets an exclusive franchise, meaning no competition and no service alternatives. The companies that thought free WiFi could be supported by ads are finding out that that is a tough business to be in.

Waukesha, Wisconsin can be added to the list ever growing list of cities that have had a wireless service provider pull out because there was no money in free WiFi. Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Houston have all had to pull back on wireless plans recently. St. Cloud, Florida has been trying to give away free WiFi service to residents with little success; residents have complained that the wireless system is slow and unreliable compared to fee-based copper systems (DSL and cable).

Wireless services have a place in every community. We all want our wireless devices (phones, iPhones, PDAs, etc.) to work wherever we are. But wireless by itself is an incomplete solution. With countries like Japan rapidly building out 100 megabit fiber systems, having only low speed wireless is not going to help a community's economic development future.

San Francisco, Earthlink say WiFi failing

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/03/2007 - 11:26

This article discusses the collapsing WiFi efforts in San Francisco, providing a real world data point that confirms what many of us have been saying for a long time: WiFi alone is not a complete solution for community broadband.

The deal between Earthlink and the city of San Franciso also confirms that there is no free lunch. Earthlink was going to build, own, and operate the free network on behalf of the City. The City part of the deal was to provide Earthlink with easements and access to city-owned light poles and other structures where the WiFi access points would be mounted. An Earthlink official who was asked about the effort said the project, ".... was not providing an acceptable rate of return." Earthlink's other free WiFi projects in Anaheim and Philadelphia are also struggling. The company expected to make money by selling faster wireless connections for a fee and by selling advertising provided by Google.

What we are seeing is that most people, when given a choice between mediocre wireless access and fee-based wireline services (e.g. fiber, DSL, cable), choose wireline services most of the time because the service quality is better.

Remember that this need not and should be an either/or debate: either our community does wireless or it does fiber. Communities need both, and should be planning and investing in properly structured public/private partnerships that really work. In the end, community investments in telecom infrastructure have to be linked to broader community and economic development goals. Few businesses are going to move to a community where the broadband "solution" is wireless only.

Wireless is slow

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/18/2007 - 09:47

Wireless Internet access does not have to be slow, but it often is. I'm at the beach this week, and the access point is about thirty feet away, right at the edge of the property, but the speed of the paid service ($28/week, much higher than in hotels and other venues) is abysmal.

Wireless is often oversold by providers, who don't provision adequate backhaul and/or try to cram too many users on each access point.

Design Nine just completed a preliminary design for a large mixed rural/city region, with both fiber and wireless service as part of the network. As usual, the cost of well-engineered wireless access points in rural areas on a per subscriber basis (with sensible subscription rates/access point, not inflated rates) gets very close to the cost of taking fiber to the same subscribers.

And the advantage of fiber, aside from much higher performance, is the ability of fiber, in an open service network architecture, to deliver not just Internet access, but a whole variety of services (hundreds) from dozens of providers. The triple play broadband model is broken financially, and nothing is going to fix it. The solution is to move to a new business model, the Layer 3 open services approach, that truly unleashes competition and innovation.

700 Mhz spectrum up for grabs

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/04/2007 - 08:04

The Public Knowledge folks have published their recommendations for how the FCC should handle the impending auction of 700 Mhz radio spectrum for broadband use. This frequency range, down around the broadcast TV spectrum, can carry a broadband data signal many miles and could be a boon for underserved areas waiting for community fiber efforts to build out fiber.

Public Knowledge is concerned that the FCC may set the auction rules in a way that favors incumbent providers, who have deep pockets and could afford to purchase most of the local market licenses for the spectrum and then do nothing with it. Independents like Google are also concerned that they may be shut out by slanted auction rules.

PK suggests several reasonable requirements, including one that would require purchasers of the spectrum to actually deploy a service or lose the license.

The 700 Mhz band is not a complete solution, but could be a really good way to provide capable mobility access as well as serving as a reasonably affordable bridge solution for broadband services until fiber arrives in some areas.

WiFi-only projects are failing

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/22/2007 - 06:56

There is an AP article circulating this morning about failing muni WiFi projects (not yet on the Web). This is something I have been predicting for a long time, based on the past performance of early WiFi efforts.

Here is a short list of problems with municipal WiFi-only efforts:

Wireless services are often a good first step for a community system. And wireless is not going away; it will remain as an important component of a well-designed community broadband system--as a mobility solution. As we travel around the community, we want to be able to access the Web, check email, make phone calls, and do other sorts of things. Wireless services enable that. But wireless is not a complete solution.

What is?

Communities need to regard telecom as essential public infrastructure, critical to community and economic development. And that well-designed community infrastructure includes both wireless access and fiber to every home and business. With the right business and financial planning, such systems can pay for themselves and provide new revenue streams to local government, while lowering the cost of telecom services. Everybody wins.

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