WiFi and wireless

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.

WiMax laptop card

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/03/2007 - 09:23

If you like to believe everything vendors tell you, WiMax will solve all our broadband problems, give us younger looking skin, and get rid of grey hair.

WiMax has been lurking for ages, a technology that has been "just a few months away" for at least three years. But it takes a long time to bring an entirely new wireless technology to market, with extensive testing required to make sure the systems don't interfere with other wireless systems, among other issues.

The approval by the FCC of the first WiMax laptop card is a good sign that we may finally be able to starting thinking about WiMax as a "real" system. WiMax base stations (the gear that powers big towers) is still very expensive, but there have been few ways to for users to actually receive WiMax signals affordably. Over the next several years, we will finally see a bunch of WiMax products enter the marketplace, and dropping prices.

Is WiMax the holy grail of broadband? Not by a long shot, but it is a much better technology than WiFi, which was designed for indoor use and short distances. WiMax was designed from the ground up to provide much more robust and interference-resistant signals over longer distances, with more bandwidth. It will gradually replace WiFi, and it will be interesting to see how it competes with EVDO, the cellular-based wireless technology favored, naturally, by the cellphone companies.

But fiber is still a necessity. Wireless services are not the first choice for businesses because of bandwidth, security, and reliability issues. And home use is being driven by high bandwidth video applications and services, which WiMax cannot support. We need well-designed fiber and wireless systems in our communities, and communities that design for both will have a significant economic development advantage.

Is India's "free broadband" a good idea?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 10:02

India has announced an ambitious plan to provide free wireless broadband throughout the country.

It is not at all clear that "free broadband" is sustainable. The longstanding problems with free services (in any market, not just broadband) include market distortion and low quality service.

Market distortion occurs because "free" services suggest to users of the service that supply is inexhaustible, and so users use as much as possible. Not everyone thinks this way, but a small number of users who hog bandwidth can consume all available supply.

This leads to low quality of service, in part because there is no pricing feedback to users (see above), and in part because the lack of revenue makes it difficult to expand capacity as demand increases.

In fact, fees alone do not guarantee a sustainable business model. In the U.S. and most other markets, the current broadband business model is upside down. Service providers enjoy maximized profits when customers, paying a fixed fee for Internet access, don't use the service at all. Service providers make the least profit if customers
like the service and use it a lot.

From an economic perspective, charging a fixed fee no matter how much bandwidth a customers uses is exactly the same as giving the service away for free. Neither one provides the funds necessary to expand capacity, increase service areas, pay for proper maintenance and upkeep, and add new services.

A solution is to move to a service oriented architecture (a different network architecture AND a different business model) that conveys a clearer relationship between supply and demand to customers. Customers pay for services, rather than buying a bucket of bandwidth. Service fees are based on the real cost of providing the service, thus providing information to customers about supply and demand. This can be done easily with both wired and wireless networks.

If the Indian government is going to build a digital road system and let private companies use the road system to sell services in return for a share of revenue, the system could work very well.

Providing a free 2 megabit connection but no services is very similar to the way roads are managed--governments build roads but allow businesses and customers to use those roads for entirely private business transactions.

Does Google have a phone?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/19/2007 - 07:45

This article [link no longer available] speculates on whether or not Google has a mobile phone in the works. It would make sense for Google to do that, since Google now has a wide array of Web-enabled applications and services that would work nicely on a large screen mobile phone. The phone and its associated service might even be free or very low fee; if it was, Google would recover its costs by restricting what users can do on the phone and/or by interspersing ads with service access (you might have to view an ad to make a phone call or do a search).

Google is also likely to include GPS capabilities, since this would enhance its mapping and ad services. A phone with GPS could provide "you are here" capabilities when delivering a Google map, and the phone could also localize ads. As you walk down the street, your phone could beep at you to tell you that there is a Domino's Pizza a half block away and why don't you stop in for a personal pizza?

The phone will likely be popular with casual users who don't mind the intrusiveness of advertising, but a lot of people will not care for it.

Cellphone tumor risk still murky

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/25/2007 - 09:16

Another study of study of tumors caused by cellphones has produced a conclusion that suggests an increased incidence of a rare kind of tumor called a glioma on the side of the head where the cellphone is used most. The study was done in Finland with people that had the rare kind of tumor, and their cellphone usage was compared to those who did not have tumors. Long term users of cellphones (more than ten years) had a higher risk of developing the tumor.

Is the iPhone a Verizon killer?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/15/2007 - 08:46

The Apple iPhone is being widely criticized for having relatively slow data service (about 256 kilobits/second) compared to Verizon's much speedier EVDO data service, which can run two or three times faster. The wireless wars have whipsawed back and forth over the past several years. Four or five years ago, many of us, including me, were enthusiastic about the potential of WiFi winning the wireless connectivity wars. But as the shortcomings of WiFi became clearer, Verizon began deployment of their EVDO wireless technology, which is piggybacked on top of their existing cellular network.

As we know from the famous Betamax vs. VHS war, the best solution does not always win. About a year ago, I began thinking (reluctantly) that perhaps the inferior EVDO system might win the mobile wars. But things are beginning to swing the other way. Verizon, following the Microsoft playbook, has made EVDO data service pricey, and EVDO is not really fast enough to handle all the things we will want to do in just a few years with our wireless devices.

So what does this have to do with the iPhone? At least one expert thinks Apple is smarter than Verizon (I know, that is setting the bar really low). Apple has used the more common and less expensive EDGE data technology in its phone to keep the price down. But it has also built in WiFi support--Verizon, by comparison, usually cripples WiFi in phones it private labels so users are forced to use the more expensive EVDO.

See the pattern? Apple expects that the winner in the wireless wars will be IP based services like WiFi and WiMax. Verizon thinks they can force everyone to purchase their one vendor only EVDO solution. It would be a mistake to bet against Apple: here is an incomplete list of technologies that Apple has pioneered that later became industry standards.

Apple seems to have a lot of cards it has not yet put on the table when it comes to the iPhone. The next couple of years will be interesting.

Good news for cellphone users

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/08/2006 - 08:06

In a widely reported story, a Danish study indicates a no more than normal incidence of cancer among cell phone users. Unlike many other studies, this one involved hundreds of thousands of people--a number large enough to make it statistically reliable. Researchers caution that the we still don't have enough long term data to know for sure that cellphones are completely safe. There is widespread agreement that cellphone and cordless phone frequencies in the gigahertz range do cause measurable changes in cell activity. What we don't know is whether or not this causes health problems. In the meantime, I'll continue to use a wired headset as much as possible (Bluetooth wireless headsets use microwave frequencies, so they are not an improvement).

Is Muni WiFi "stalling"

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/01/2006 - 08:00

This article from mid-summer just came to my attention. It discusses some of the current municipal WiFi projects and the problems they are having. WiFi vendors tout the low cost of wireless and the "easy" installation--stick up a few towers and you are done. What they tend to leave out of the sales pitch is that current WiFi systems often have trouble penetrating trees with leaves on them, don't penetrate walls well, and the signal does not go around corners. Here is a portion of the article:

A successful economic model for running municipal Wi-Fi networks has yet to emerge," notes from the city's director of IT, Chris Mead, acknowledge.
The city also noted that while subscription models for Wi-Fi have been a flop, advertising-based revenue "cannot be taken for granted", either.
"It may be that municipal Wi-Fi is a passing fad that will be left behind by economic reality and new technology," advised Mead.

Vendors also often provide an unfair cost analysis. The claim that wireless is cheaper than fiber is bogus because wireless vendors compare the one time installation cost of wireless systems with the 30 year amortized cost of fiber systems--an apples and oranges comparison. If you look at the 30 year cost of providing wireless and compare that to the 30 year cost of fiber, guess which one is less expensive? It is fiber!

Our communities need good, reliable wireless broadband coverage for mobile devices. We want our phones and PDAs to work wherever we are in town. But particularly from an economic development perspective, wireless is an incomplete solution. If you are having trouble sorting out vendor claims, call us--Design Nine can provide a complete set of broadband planning and implementation services, and we will help you sort out conflicting and confusing vendor claims and put together a broadband strategy for your community or region.

FCC gets it right in Boston

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/02/2006 - 20:28

The Boston airport administration has tried for two years to force out every WiFi provider in the airport except the one with whom they signed a contract. This meant that travelers did not have a choice of providers, and that free WiFi in airline frequent traveler lounges had to be removed by the airlines. Logan Airport officials claimed the WiFi providers were causing radio interference with airport operations, thereby endangering safety. Right. Unlike the thousands of cellphones crowding the very same airwaves.

The FCC finally got into the act and told the airport officials to knock it off. Good for the FCC. In this case, they came down squarely on the side of citizens and the free market, and that's always the right thing to do.

Muni wireless: good, bad, or indifferent?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/17/2006 - 07:55

Network Computing has a short article with a headline that touts, "City governments are offering metro wireless services with speeds and latency that can't be beat." Sounds interesting, right? But if you read all the way to the end, where the article discusses the fabled WiMax, which will supposedly solve all the world's broadband problems, you find out that WiMax's multimegabit speeds drop to "1 to 2 megabits only at the outer edges."

So WiMax looks a lot like DSL--great if you live near an access point, but the farther away you are, the less you get from it, until even DSL or a cable modem connection is going to provide better and more consistent throughput. You have to read the fine print when looking at vendor promises.

I strongly encourage communities to invest in wireless, but only as part of an integrated strategy that includes both fiber and wireless, with wireless designed primarily for mobile uses. Over the long term, wireless can be more expensive than fiber when you look at the total life cycle costs, and if you are trying to design a system that pays for itself over time, it is difficult to do that with wireless by itself. An integrated fiber/wireless design, on the other hand, can actually return money to the community for other community and economic development uses. Design Nine specializes in helping communities and regions design and build such systems. Give us a call or drop us a note if you would like more information.

Hybrid phones will become the standard

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/29/2006 - 19:11

Swedish-Finnish telecom company TeliaSonera has started selling hybrid phones that will automatically make phone calls via the Internet when in range of a WiFi hotspot, and use the normal cellphone network when not in a hotspot. Some other dual mode phones have been available, but this is the first phone (manufactured by Samsung) that will switch automatically between the two. The firm is targeting in home use first, which is clever, because we make a lot of calls from home. If you have a wireless router in your house, the phone will automatically make VoIP calls, saving money.

Devices like this illustrate the need to design communitywide broadband networks that offer BOTH fiber and wireless connectivity. We are going to want and need both, and communities should plan and design for both.

Wireless won't work for HD TV

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 08/26/2006 - 08:45

This article discusses Intel's belief that wireless networks in the home are inadequate for high definition television. The highly touted 802.11g, with a theoretical maximum bandwidth will only deliver about 22 megabits under the best of conditions in an in-home network, and performance could be much worse. In other words, it will barely handle a single channel of HD TV--as long as you or any one in the family is not doing anything else on the network.

Community wireless projects that rely entirely on WiFi are going to be similarly disappointed, as that bandwidth now has to be shared among several households. WiFi and its variants don't work well going through walls, and the wireless systems that experience poor reception because of interference operate much more slowly.

What does Intel recommend? The firm suggests wiring your house with Ethernet cable designed to support the very efficient Gigabit Ethernet standard (Cat 5e or Cat 6 cable, which is very inexpensive).

The state of WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/27/2006 - 08:36

I have been traveling a lot lately, so I have had the opportunity to try out a lot of WiFi hotspots. The good news is that most hotels now have some kind of WiFi available. Business travelers can stay almost anywhere and count on having some kind of Internet access. I have not had to use my Earthlink dial up account in many months. Many "budget" hotels have some kind of free WiFi, with service about what you pay for it (nothing). Service at the far end of the hall in the hotel may be poor, and speeds may be pokey. The more expensive hotels tend to make you pay extra for service, and as time goes by, I begrudge this less and less because the service is usually much better. Many hotels have gone to wired access (Marriotts, most notably) to provide more control--you can't sit in your car in the hotel parking lot and poach free WiFi access with wired in-room connections.

Public WiFi hotspots, if anything, have become harder and harder to find. Many businesses that were experimenting with this service a year or two ago seem to have dropped the service--it costs money. Places like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have service agreements with national providers like T-Mobile and AT&T. But access is still expensive. The going rate for 24 hours of access is still around ten bucks--extortionate since most travelers probably are only connected for an hour or less. Monthly subscriptions are still hovering around $40. This would be reasonable if the big outfits allowed roaming, but they don't. None of the big companies have enough hotspots in enough places to justify the expense, and few can afford to carry two or three $40/month fees just to check email on the road for ten or fifteen minutes.

Community WiFi projects are also struggling, like the St. Cloud, Florida project, where few people use the free service because of quality and access issues. WiFi looks cheap on the front end, often because wireless vendors have financial models that obscure the ongoing costs and take rate issues. If you do a true life cycle comparison with a fiber effort over twenty or thirty years, fiber is not just competitive, but much cheaper. And the real issue with wireless is that it does not provide the speeds that most homes and businessses will want or need in just three to five years. Design Nine is working on several fiber projects right now where we are working with financing specialists to develop some new and innovative ways to build fiber networks. As these projects progress, I'll keep you informed.

Should communities avoid WiFi projects? Absolutely not, but you need to know why you are doing it and how you are going to pay for and manage it over the long term. And you should not rely on wireless vendor promises of "build it and they will come." What St. Cloud has found out is that many people (perhaps most) are willing to pay for more expensive wired broadband connections rather than free but inferior WiFi. As I have been saying for a long time, communitywide wireless projects have to be approached very very carefully.

Free WiFi may not always be "free"

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/22/2006 - 09:42

A coffee shop in Washington state had a guy arrested for using their "free" WiFi signal for three months without buying anything. The alleged WiFi poacher apparently just sat in his car in the parking lot nearly every day and used the Internet access without buying anything.

The shop finally called the cops, who told the guy to leave. When he returned later, the cops were called again and this time, they charged him with theft of services. The law here is murky, but it is a good example of how poorly many WiFi hotspots are managed. With different software or hardware, the store owner could limit the amount of time any one person uses the service per day, or could simply block the MAC address (a hard coded network address in each computer) of that computer.

Thinking about setting up a hot spot? Get good advice before jumping in.

Citywide WiFi projects are expensive experiments

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/12/2006 - 10:48

Citywide WiFi projects in Sacramento, California and St. Cloud, Florida are both having problems, supporting my long-standing contention that these efforts are risky. MobilePro, the company that got a city government contract to blanket the city with WiFi, is pulling out of the project entirely after the company and the city could not agree on how to finance the project. What's mind-boggling is how the company and the city agreed to move forward without a clear understanding of how the system would be paid for. Unfortunately, this is typical of "knee jerk" broadband projects that are promoted vigorously to local leaders who don't really understand enough about how community broadband should be operated. And very few vendors do, either. Wireless vendors just want to sell hardware, and so they don't really care very much if a business model is weak or nonexistent.

In St. Cloud, Florida, which got a lot of publicity when their citywide wireless effort was announced, is now having problems because they are finding out what some of us have known for a long time--WiFi is at best a bridge technology, not a long term solution. And you have to understand its limitations to make best use of it. The St. Cloud problems are largely technical ones at this time, with many residents not able to get a strong enough signal to use the free service. Residents are being advised by the City to buy a $170 signal booster. But many say they are going to stick with DSL.

One of the problems with WiFi is that it is can be lumped in the same category as DSL and cable modem services--that is too say, not exactly a bridge to the future. If you already have DSL or cable modem service, switching to WiFi is not likely to bring any real improvement to throughput, and it might even be less capable. Consumers are price sensitive to a point, but at this time, many people already understand the value of broadband, and are willing to pay for it in return for adequate performance. What St. Cloud is finding out is that residents won't necessarily switch to a free service that does not perform up to their expectations. So the city's money may have been wasted.

Community wireless contract issues

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/20/2006 - 03:58

Anthony Townsend, an expert on the social impacts of technology, has written an important article about community WiFi projects. Townsend is concerned that community leaders, in the rush to show some progress in broadband, are inking deals that give away too much.

As an example, community wireless systems usually have some kind of sign on portal Web page. Often, this space is used for ad insertion, which is fine because it helps to support the cost of the system and can provide visibility to local merchants. But Townsend feels that a significant portion of the page should be allocated for community use--links to the community Web site, community calendar, notices of community events, and so on. A poorly executed contract may lose that community presence for many years.

Townsend also has a problem, as many others do, with the intrusive location monitoring now being implemented in some community wireless systems. Google's San Francisco system will be able to track a WiFi user around the city, and will use that data (where you are, where you have been) to target ads. It sounds innocuous, but this is essentially a loss of privacy. It could have serious consequences if the data is sold to third parties and/or if available to the government. Townsend thinks, and I agree, that location tracking should be an opt-in choice--the WiFi provider can do that only if you give express permission.

Finally, Townsend thinks that some bandwidth should be available to the community for experimental use, particularly as we see new and innovative uses for Internet-connected devices (e.g. parking meters, cars, etc.). The community should retain some control over the WiFi spectrum, and not just give it away to the first company that offers a "free" WiFi deal. It's worth remembering the old adage, "There is no such thing as a free lunch." Make sure community leaders, when making technology decisions, remember this.

Will UMA save the cellular industry?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/10/2006 - 09:11

In a perfect world, we would throw our cellular phones away and move as fast as possible to an all Internet wireless system, using VoIP to make phone calls and the same packet-based IP transport for all other kinds of data--one kind of transport system for everything--voice, video, Web, you name it.

But infrastructure usually trumps good ideas. We already have a vast cellular infrastructure that works pretty well, at the expense of having a separate wireless road system for phone calls--one that does not work with the more versatile Internet road system. And it is hard to imagine how you just throw away all the billions already invested and invest billions more for a new wireless Internet everywhere.

But the cellphone manufacturers may have cracked this problem with UMA, or [link no longer available] Unlicensed Mobile Access. Using a single wireless phone, users can use it to make calls when near a WiFi hotspot OR on the conventional cellular system. Even more interesting, you can do so seamlessly. You can start a call on the cellular network, walk into a WiFi hotspot, and the phone will switch to the Internet seamlessly while you are talking.

There are a lot of issues to be worked out, including pricing (it's cheaper to carry voice calls over WiFi/Internet), but it gives the cellular companies a roadmap for making the transition to an all Internet road system gracefully. We'll see more and more phones coming standard with WiFi, which will also make it easier to use our phones and PDAs to check mail, surf the Web, watch movies, and stream music.

Toronto announces wireless blanket

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/07/2006 - 10:43

I am not a big fan of me-too municipal wireless projects. Wireless technology remains in flux, with new equipment and systems coming online constantly. Interference and bandwidth issues have to be considered very carefully when designing these systems. And you have to know how you are going to pay for the network management and maintenance.

In other words, a community should not be planning a big wireless initiative just because "that's what they are doing in Philadelphia."

The city of Toronto has just announced a big wireless project, and they have an interesting approach to making the system pay for itself--VoIP.

The city wants to create competition for the cellular companies, and wireless VoIP could be just the thing. From a technical perspective, VoIP is clearly superior (think BetaMax). But wireless VoIP phones are not very appealing because they only work where there is a hotspot. And we want our phones to work everywhere.

So the cellular companies have an inferior voice/data combo (voice and EVDO data service) that works with an infrastructure already in place (think VHS). Wireless VoIP phones won't catch on unless they work, but how do build out the infrastructure when you don't have enough customers to pay the bills?

It's a classic chicken and egg problem.

But if local government steps in and helps with the infrastructure part, everybody wins. Suddenly, lots of people can use VoIP phones throughout the city, and competition drives voice prices down.

What would be great is if the city of Toronto allows multiple service providers to sell VoIP over the city network--that creates a win-win situation that creates jobs and opportunities in the private sector while those service providers pay small fees based on income to the city, which pays for the investment and maintenance.

U.S. broadband: "Slowest, most expensive in the world"

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/31/2006 - 10:35

With a hat tip to Chris Miller, this article underscores the seriousness of the broadband crisis in the United States. We're paying more than anybody else in the developed world for "broadband," while getting a lot less, performance-wise (50 to 100 times slower in most cases).

Other countries with better broadband using it to supercharge economic development; Ireland was a basket case twenty years ago, and in part, due to their investments in broadband, it is the hottest country in Europe for jobs and business, as just one example. In Asia, fast, affordable broadband is driving opportunity everywhere. It's not accident that India is stealing jobs from the U.S.; the only reason they can do that is broadband--lots of it, at affordable prices.

Meanwhile, in this country, too many economic developers are missing the obvious. If companies are willing to outsource to India, with all the attendant costs and disadvantages of working at such a distance, export/import issues, and language issues, why not outsource within the United States, where much of the baggage associated with offshoring disappears.

But in too many areas of the country, we are not investing in broadband and our leaders still do not see the connection between broadband and economic development. This article is particularly important because it reviews the history of electric power deployment. Seventy years ago, local, state, and Federal government began to invest in municipal electric services because the private sector was leaving great swaths of the country underserved. A great wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, with the private electric industry claiming it was the end of Western Civilization, or something close to it.

Universal access to affordable electric service was an economic development issue then, and today, universal access to affordable, fast broadband is an economic development issue. The good news is that public broadband investments can be made in a way that not only do NOT compete with the private sector, those investments can open new markets and help create new private sector jobs.

We can all win if this done right, and step one is to re-read the history of technology deployment in U.S. communities. We've been here before.

New superfast WiFi system clobbers older WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/30/2006 - 09:41

The whole Internet wireless system marketplace has become increasingly complex and confusing. This short article from the Register points to several other articles that discuss the new MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) wireless gear. MIMO systems, which use multiple antennas at each end, promise speeds as high as 100 megabits per second, so in theory they could replace fiber as a first mile option for services like IP television.

But physics, poor design, and market share strategies make it likely that these new wireless systems will never be a complete substitute for a fiber connection. I am technology neutral--I believe we will have and will want both fiber and wireless connections. Communities need to plan for both. But this article should give pause to anyone who thinks that you can just stick up a few wireless antennas and believe you have solved all your community's broadband problems.

The new systems created serious interference with older WiFi systems, rendering them almost useless. Certain kinds of encryption, when turned on, cut throughput of the systems by 30%. Vendors are also fighting over who is implementing "true MIMO," suggesting that a compatibiility nightmare is looming, where one vendor's "MIMO" equipment won't work with "MIMO" equipment made by another vendor.

It is also yet another example of why you cannot just take the word of a vendor when considering broadband options. Vendors want to sell you what they have, not what you may need. It is particularly risky to accept vendor offers to provide "free" broadband system design (Disclaimer: Design Nine provides broadband planning services).

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