WiFi and wireless

Rural Oregon county has biggest WiFi system

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/17/2005 - 08:35

The WiFi system that covers the biggest area in the country is not in a major city like New York, Philadelphia, or San Francisco. It is in rural Oregon, in a county of just 11,000 people. Not only that, the system is generating substantial revenue, suggesting that there is plenty of money to be made in broadband in rural areas when the whole community gets on board.

Local governments are paying to use the system to automate parking meters, among other applications, and farmers are using it to monitor their crops and to communicate with their buyers.

The availability of the affordable system has spawned dozens of new users no one expected prior to the rollout, which is exactly the point--trying to predict the success of a comprehensive community broadband system by looking at what people and businesses are doing today is completely and utterly futile. It also proves my longstanding argument that feasiblity studies and market studies are of very limited value, because they can only measure what people are doing not. Affordable broadband changes use patterns and opens up new applications people don't think of until they actually have a usable system in place. In my experience, I have seen some broadband "feasibility" studies actually have a negative impact because the study predicts there won't be enough use.

The entrepreneur that owns the system nailed it when asked what the biggest obstacle was to rolling out these systems. His reply was, "Politics." It's not money, and it is not technology. When local governments work with entrepreneurs and businesspeople to support broadband, great things happen.

15 megabit mobile VoIP in Japan

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/14/2005 - 14:50

Japan has announced a plan to roll out mobile Voice over IP services nationwide in less than two years, leaving the U.S. in dust. The new system will handle data speeds of 15 megabits/second, or 15-25 times faster than typical wired DSL and cable servie in the United States and nearly a thousand times faster than typical 3G cellphone data services.

Why are so many other countries so far ahead of the United States, and why are our local leaders so willing to let their communities languish without competitive technology?

A Tech Council making a difference

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/02/2005 - 19:46

The Region 2000 Technology Council, which serves Lynchburg, Virginia and the surrounding area, is really beginning to make a difference. A year ago, they found that too many people in the area still did not understand the value of broadband, in part because they had never had a chance to try it.

So the Tech Council rolled up its sleeves and went to work. They set of goal of getting 50 WiFi hotspots in the region in the next year, and started with the airport. A little more than a year later, the group has met its goal, and free WiFi is available for business and personal use throughout the Lynchburg area.

The effort has been good for the business owners that have made the small investment needed to create individual hotsports. Hotels, B&Bs, coffee shops, and other businesses are seeing increased traffic, according to an article in the Blue Ridge Business Journal (paper edition).

Google, fiber, and WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 09/20/2005 - 09:08

The tech world is abuzz with the announcement by Google that they are:

1) Rolling out a national fiber backbone

2) Offering Google Secure Access WiFi services

Throw a rock and you'll hit someone with an opinion, but on SlashDot, which usually has pretty sharp insight into these things, the consensus is as follows:

1) Google's network initiatives will allow it to know even more about its customers, making advertising on Google even more valuable (and it is the advertising that is paying the bills).

2) The phone companies are in deep trouble. Google just rolled out GoogleTalk, a voice application that could quickly become full-fledged VoIP, and you needs lot of bandwidth to handle lots of phone calls. Hence the national fiber backbone. Google will be able to quickly build a large customer base and throw all the hardware resources needed at it to keep service quality high. Look for college students to start dropping cellphone service first.

3) But how do you replace cellphones with fiber? Well, you need a WiFi and/or WiMax wireless network to do so. Which Google has started testing. Just like Sprint and MCI did in the early days of competitive long distance, Google will cherry pick key markets and grab big gobs of customers--think college campuses and college towns, downtown metro areas, etc.

4) Google will also use its massive network to continually provide new and improved Web applications to piggyback on its email, mapping, and newsgroup services. Eventually, Google will rollout a net-centric desktop OS replacement for free, killing Windows.

Who loses? From a community perspective, rural communities are not likely to see free or low cost Google services anytime soon, because the markets are not big enough.

As I have written before, I am very cautious about Google and any other "free" service providers (e.g. Yahoo!, MSN, etc.). You give your privacy away, and lose ownership of your own data. Yahoo! just handed over emails to the Chinese government that resulted in a ten year jail sentence for someone who was writing about freedom in China (or the lack of it).

We need to be very cautious about any company that offers "free" services and exposes us to privacy and free speech problems.

The cellular empire strikes back

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 09:22

Just a year ago, a lot of people, including me, were predicting that the cellular phone companies would implode as Voice over IP and broadband wireless stole customers.

I'm not so sure anymore. What's different is that the cellphone industry has begun offering a broader range of services that are more likely to be popular. As basic cellphone service has become a commodity with cut-throat pricing, it's add-on services that help pay the bills.

Sprint Nextel has just announced a streaming radio service, with a variety of music and news "channels." Priced at $7 a month, it costs less than the popular satellite radio. Like satellite and Internet radio, it breaks the old radio model that depended on a certain range of frequencies. While it's not a broadband service, it looks like a broadband service and leverages the existing cellular infrastructure.

But streaming audio ties up a cellphone circuit between the tower and the phone, so it will be interesting to see how well this works with voice service. If it is popular, Sprint Nextel will have to add more equipment and/or more towers. Presumably they have studied this and know what the future costs could be.

The problem with the service is that it exists in a Sprint Nextel walled garden. You can only get it if you are a customer of Sprint Nextel. A broadband version would be more accessible to more people, and would not be device dependent.

But it is definitely forward-thinking, unlike the record companies, who keep trying to drag us back to the age of vinyl records, or something like that.

Vermont gets WiFi at rest stops

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/02/2005 - 12:24

The state of Vermont is installing WiFi at every rest stop in the state. A grant is helping to fund the initial equipment expenditure, but fees will pay for the management and ongoing expense.

It looks like it has been well-thought out. Government is providing the initial infrastructure, the private sector manages it, which creates jobs, and the public that want to use it pay a modest fee.

This is a great example of a public/private partnership, and this is not "competing" with the private sector; it is creating private sector business opportunities. And tax dollars are not funding it; user fees are. And it is modest in scope. I'm very wary of big wireless projects that don't have well-identified markets. Rest stops have a ready and willing supply of truckers, tourists, and businesspeople who I think will be happy to pay a few bucks for access.

Philadelphia and broadband aggregation

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/01/2005 - 14:43

Philadelphia's plan to deploy WiFi throughout the city has never made sense to me. I am never in favor of massive system deployments in advance of understanding the marketplace and making sure that you are offering something users want and will use. If a community is going to do WiFi, better to start with some modest hotspot deployments, watch usage, and adjust your plans accordingly. If the system is jammed with users--great! That is success. Now you have real justification for expanding your telecom investment.

But back to Philadelphia. This Wall Street Journal article reveals that there is method to the City's madness. What Philadelphia plans to do is to aggregate all their individual Internet connections and buy one large, "fat pipe" that will serve the entire set of city agencies, at a much reduced cost. And the wireless network will help distribute all that bandwidth to the appropriate city facilities.

Another WiMax delay

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/23/2005 - 09:24

The Register reports on more delays certifying WiMax equipment. New wireless equipment has to be tested to ensure that it meets the specifications of the 802.16 standard before it can be sold.

It is just one more sign of the danger of spending too much, too fast on wireless "solutions" if you don't have a technology master plan in place. An example of this is Philadelphia's plan to cover most of the city in a WiFi blanket.

A thoughtful plan would roll this out very slowly, mainly to understand market demand, before spending millions on a technology that has several more capable competitors waiting in the wings.

What's wrong with WiFi? We have several years experience using wireless systems, and what is emerging as a wireless marketplace is NOT fixed wireless, which is what WiFi (802.11) was designed for. WiFi is a coffeeshop solution; you take your laptop somewhere, sit down, and connect to the Internet.

What people really want is mobile wireless, which has two components: true mobile connectivity, as in, "riding down the interstate while connected to the Internet." Notice I said "riding," not "driving." Hopefully, someone else is doing the driving while you are Web surfing.

The second kind of mobile wireless is the ability to connect from virtually anywhere, but not necessarily in a moving vehicle. This requires different radio spectrum than WiFi, that can travel farther and that uses fewer hotspots. As I've previously noted, cellular-based systems like EVDO and Flash-OFDM may eclipse WiMax because the products have already been tested and are in deployment.

Planning is essential if you are thinking about community investments in wireless. You need to identify who will use it, under what conditions, and how you will cover the cost of maintenance and operations. And do not take the word of vendors that their "solution" will solve all your broadband problems.

WiMax vs. EVDO: Who will win?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 08/22/2005 - 10:52

WiMac boosters like Intel think the new wireless technology is just the thing to solve everyone's broadband connectivity problems. Of course, the firm makes WiMax equipment, so you have to take their marketing hype with a grain of salt.

But WiMax and it's little brother, WiFi, offer a unified wireless model that says, "Let's use the Internet to transport everything, including voice phone calls (via VoIP)."

On the other side of the ring, we have the cellular companies, who know that VoIP and wireless have the potential to make their old-fashioned wireless systems obsolete.

The Internet crowd have technological superiority and simplicity on their side. The wireless Internet model is just a better way of doing things. The problem is that virtually no infrastructure is in place to offer those services, and it will cost billions to get enough service in enough places to create markets of paying customers.

Emerging monopolies

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/11/2005 - 06:03

There was an article in yesterday's USA Today about the cellphone companies and their race to push advanced wireless services. They have to do this because basic cellphone service is not very profitable, and they also know that VoIP, enabled by WiFi and other open standard wireless systems, will inevitably eat away at cellphone use.

Sprint/Nextel, the recently merged cellphone companies, are trying to leverage 2.5 gigahertz licensed spectrum that the company owns. They bought it years ago when no one thought it was worth anything, but today, the firm thinks they have a competitor to WiMax. Sprint/Nextel owns the licenses for the spectrum in 80% of the major U.S. markets, which sounds uncomfortably like a monopoly.

Cable companies want to sell you wireless

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/29/2005 - 09:58

The cable companies, according to a Wired article, have decided to add wireless services to their current mix of wired offerings, which include TV, Internet access, and voice telephony.

It makes sense, and the cable companies are more likely to get it right than companies like Verizon, which are betting on hybrid systems like EVDO to deliver data to cellphones.

But I'm skeptical about how fast this "new" concept will move. The cable company vision of a very capable PDA/phone/TV thingie is where things are going, but to sell them, you have to have a compelling mix of services and content AND a wireless delivery system that covers whole markets.

WiFi poaching and the law

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/08/2005 - 09:28

CNet has a great FAQ-style article on the current kerfuffle surrounding WiFi signal poaching. It's worth a read if you have a WiFi network in your home or business. There are two points worth considering. Most service contracts from DSL and cable providers prohibit sharing your bandwidth with other locations. So if you keep an open access point so the little old lady across the street can download some songs from iTunes once in a while, it's most likely a violation of your service agreement.

Second, an open access point can be used for illegal activities. While you are not likely to be held liable, open access points are a target of some spammers, who hijack the signal to dump a few million emails on the network (which does not take as long as you might think). Other unpleasant uses include using a "borrrowed" access point to download illicit material like child pornography. Using someone else's Internet access makes it much harder to track down such activities.

WiFi theft

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/07/2005 - 09:06

A Florida man has been arrested and charged with theft of a WiFi signal. Ben Smith was apparently parking outside someone's home regularly to "borrow" the broadband signal.

This may sound inoccuous, but suppose someone stopped by your flower garden every day and cut a few of your roses for their own use? Or if they walked into your yard twice a week in the winter and took wood off your woodpile?

Much has been made of "wardriving," which is for some a kind of sport--driving around looking for open networks to get free broadband access. One might argue that if households are using WiFi without access control or encryption, it's their problem, but that's akin to saying that it is okay to steal a TV from someone's home if the door is left unlocked.

A friend of mine who moved recently was able to connect to four of his neighbor's WiFi signals (he has his own service, so he is not "borrowing" from the neighbors). It's just good policy to take a few minutes to turn on encryption and access control in your wireless router. And it keeps your data files from prying eyes (an "open" WiFi router will often let anyone who picks up the signal get full access to the contents of your hard drive.

Will EVDO save cellular?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/28/2005 - 07:18

EVDO, or broadband for cellular telephones, may be the one chance cellular has to beat back the VoIP onslaught, which makes cellular irrelevant if you have access to a wireless Internet signal. Verizon, like most phone companies, likes to bet on technologies that are expensive and thereby easy to control--you can't just go out and start an EVDO business the same way you can start a wireless Internet business.

To use EVDO on your laptop, you have to buy an EVDO card and pay for access to the network (on top of your current cellular bill). But it is very fast, and the big advantage EVDO has right now is that you can get an EVDO signal in a lot more places than WiFi, and it goes further. So EVDO could snatch cellular service back from the grave.

Is there anothe disrupter out there? There almost always is, and it's WiMax. WiMax signals go farther than cellular signals, and WiMax is much faster than EVDO. And almost anyone will be able to finance a WiMax wireless business. EVDO has to capture a large chunk of the market quickly.

Where would I put my money? On WiMax.

Orlando pulls plug on free WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/22/2005 - 08:09

The City of Orlando has pulled the plug on its ambitious free WiFi program. It was costing the city almost $2000/month, and only an average of 27 people a day were using the system. There are several things we can learn from this.

So what should communities be doing about WiFi? I think that muni WiFi makes sense only when you understand what the bigger community goals are. Are you trying to get tourists to pull off the interstate and visit your community? Then a free WiFi hotspot at the tourist center makes a lot of sense, and is easily justified.

Nine seconds to crack a home wireless network

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/15/2005 - 07:49

You should take a look at this article [link no longer available] if you operate a home or small business wireless network. It details how easy it is to crack the encryption, which then gives the hacker access to all your computer files. What is even more alarming is how many people don't configure the low cost wireless routers correctly and often leave the encryption turned off completely.

A neighbor who uses one of the devices related the story of an individual in a pickup truck who started parking near his home in the evenings for an hour or two. Thinking it might be a burglar casing the home for a later break in, he was understandably concerned. The first thing he did was take a casual stroll one evening when the truck was parked out there, and noticed the guy was tapping away on a laptop. The lightbulb went on, he ran home, and checked his wireless router. Sure enough, he had left the encryption off, and the visitor had been enjoying free broadband every evening.

So the neighbor turned encryption back on, then walked over to the window. Sure enough, within a minute, the guy closed the lid on his laptop, started his truck, and drove away. He has not been back since.

Another friend, who installs Ethernet cabling for a living, related the story of moving to a new neighborhood. After unpacking his laptop and firing it up, he checked for WiFi signals. From inside his home, he was able to see four unsecured WiFi networks from his new neighbors, meaning that none of them had security turned on. Had he wanted to, he could have made copies of their files or looked for personal information.

If you are using WiFi at home, be careful. Turn on encryption and require password access. And if you are operating a home-based business, I can't recommend using WiFi at all. Spend the money to get Ethernet cable to the rooms where you work. One big benefit of cabled networks--much faster network speeds, which is great for doing backups, file sharing, and room to room music sharing.

Free WiFi has its limits

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/27/2005 - 09:05

Slashdot reports on a coffee shop that has started turning it's WiFi off on weekends. WiFi "squatters" were sitting at tables for six to eight hours at a time, preventing other patrons from finding a place to sit, and worse, some squatters were not buying anything.

It might be that some clearly posted rules would also mitigate the squatters, and it's an interesting contrast to other published reports that some businesspeople have seen receipts and profits rise after installing WiFi.

Michigan muni wireless project

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/03/2005 - 09:09

Oakland County, Michigan (via Muni Wireless) has issued an RFQ for wireless services to provide broadband throughout the region. It's a public/private partnership, which is the right way to go--government provides leadership and helps ensure universal (or nearly universal service) and the private sector creates jobs and pays taxes. Here's an excerpt from the County's Web site, which shows these county leaders "get it."

"....[the wireless service] will enhance Oakland County's ability to attract and retain high-tech and nanotechnology corporations.

Wireless Oakland will also enhance the residential character of our local communities and further distinguish Oakland County as a great place to live, work, and play. It will support a growing mobile workforce and elevate the technical knowledge of its current and future workforces."

Oakland County has identified a technology cluster (nanotechnology), recognized that they have to invest to make that economic development cluster grow, and goes further to recognize that technology enhances quality of life.

This is the competition, right here in America. Some U.S. communities are getting smart about this, and are going to start pulling businesses from other regions.

VoIP works just fine at 80 mph

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 02/23/2005 - 07:52

Esme Vos at MuniWireless reports that Arizona has been testing VoIP via wireless on highways, and that telephone calls have been made successfully at speeds of 80 MPH. The effort uses equipment from a company called RoamAD. The mesh network system is able to hand off the signal from one cell to another without losing the telephone call.

I've been following mesh networks for some time, and I think the technology, which is inexpensive and ideal for covering large areas with a WiFi blanket, is poised to catch on.

One of the weak points in the incumbent opposition to municipal wireless networks is the fact that a WiFi blanket is likely to emerge as a key public safety technology. On top of that, community-regional WiFi blankets are going to save taxpayer dollars. Laptops are already common in patrol cars. But imagine if a police officer, at the scene of an accident, could not only videotape the scene, but transmit it in realtime to a server back at the police station, where it could be archived, along with all the paperwork, which would also be transmitted in realtime from the scene.

Drunk driving enforcement could use the same systems, archiving roadside sobriety tests as evidence for a court trial. Fire, rescue, and paramedic teams could also use 24/7 realtime network access to improve response times and save lives.

And if a community is provisioning a wireless network, why not design it so citizens can use it as well?

As always, I think that communities ought to be making the infrastructure investments (duct, towers, tower sites, colocation facilities) and issue RFPs to the private sector to provision and manage the network. That way communities get what they need while creating private sector jobs. Why would you want to do it any other way?

Motorola to build Skype cellphones

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/18/2005 - 09:25

Motorola has announced that it will build a GSM cellphone (the European standard now being introduced in the U.S.) that is also "Skype ready." This means if you are in a WiFi hotspot, you can make calls for free via the Internet. Not in a hotspot? Then the phone uses the old cellphone system.

Skype is a popular free VoIP service that was founded by two of the originators of popular peer to peer services including Altnet and Kazaa. Skype to Skype calls are free, and the company charges for calls made to the old telephone network (i.e. what most of us use).

It's not clear exactly what the future is for services like Skype. The company's software is proprietary, so they control their user base, unlike some other Open Source VoIP services like Free Word Dialup. Skype is popular right now because they have a more finished product that is easy to install and use. Some of the Open Source software is a bit rough around the edges.

I'll stand by my prediction that telephony as a business is dead, dead, dead. In the future, voice calls will be like email--we'll all have it and use it heavily, and it won't cost us a dime to call anyone, anywhere in the world.

Business opportunity: voice and video calls to the moon and to Mars will cost money for a while because of limited bandwidth. Real time calls to the moon will be just barely possible; the latency will make for a slight delay, but it will be manageable. Real time calls to Mars will not be convenient, as the latency will make it very difficult to have a conversation fluidly. According to my calculations, the latency to Mars will vary between about 4 minutes and 20 minutes, depending on the relative positions of the earth and Mars.

You might ask, "What happens to the phone companies?" The phone companies have to recognize that their only option is to think of themselves as access providers rather than service providers. And they are lumbering in that direction, albeit very slowly. The acquisition of AT&T and MCI by local dialtone companies gives the latter the long haul circuits to better serve the access market.

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