WiFi and wireless

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.

WiFi and the Sock Puppets

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/15/2005 - 10:01

MediaCitizen has a good summary of the efforts of the big providers to squash municipal projects. The article itself has little new information, except for a nugget of pure gold, in a box about half way down the page.

He cites St. Cloud, Florida, which operates a large WiFi network for citizens. The average savings on broadband access exceeds the average tax bill for residents, and keeps $3 million to $4 million dollars per year in the local economy.

It is nice to begin to see the results of some of these networks. I've been saying for several years that if you do the math, community investments in broadband will pay off handsomely if you can divert those telecom payments to local and regional suppliers.

Just a reminder--I don't think municipaliites ought to be providing telecom services directly to citizens. Instead, community investments ought to lower the cost of doing business for private sector companies, and those investments should help create an open, competitive marketplace. Do I think that projects like the St.Cloud effort are bad? No. I just think that over the long run (5-10 years) communities that view telecom infrastructure like roads will be better off than communities that treat it like water or sewer.

Hands off WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/11/2005 - 15:39

Dianah Neff, the CIO of the City of Philadelphia, has written an interesting article on municipalities and WiFi for CNet.

Philadelphia had ambitious plans to provide WiFi citywide until Verizon jumped into the discussion and got the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a law requiring municipalities to ask Verizon's permission before going into the service business (Philadelphia was exempted, but the whole debacle put the brakes on Philadelphia's effort).

Neff puts her finger on what I think is an essential truth in this whole dust up:

For all the money they've spent lobbying against municipal participation, they could have built the network themselves. The truth, of course, is that the incumbent local exchange carriers want unregulated monopolies over all telecommunications.

Bingo! The article is worth a careful read.

Muni wireless: friends and foes

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/01/2005 - 14:21

eWeek has a good article that provides a useful snapshot of anti-muni telecom investment legislation that is that is making the rounds of legislatures (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana).

Some of these laws are so bad it makes your head hurt. Why on earth are state legislatures wading into what is clearly a local issue? It is exactly the same as if these legislators had decided to make public water projects illegal because "it keeps out private companies." Would our communities be better places to live if all water distribution was handled by private companies?

Actually, we know exactly how that turns out, since that is the way things were done in the late 19th and early 20th century. Prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, as one tawdry example, water to the city was provided by several private firms. To save money, they build the main water lines to the city directly over known earthquake faults, and provided no backup means of delivering water.

The earthquake is not what leveled San Francisco. It was the fires that occurred after the earthquake. With all the water lines broken, there was no water to put out fires, and so, over a period of a few days, the entire city burned completely to the ground.

I'm not trying to be hysterical here; my point is that a knee jerk "leave it to the private sector" is not always an appropriate response. Some things really should be done by government, and there is ample precedent to take services that were once offered solely by the private sector and move at least part of them into the public sector--like the transport layer of telecom (NOT the service layer).

Telecom is best done, in my opinion, as public/private partnerships. Are there other ways to do it? Of course there are. But an overreaching principle should be that state and Federal lawmakers should not be usurping the right of communities to decide their own future.

The future of WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 01/16/2005 - 20:42

If you want to see what it will be like when WiFi hotspots can be found almost anywhere, just check in for a night to any of the low end motels (e.g. Holiday Inn Express) that offer "free" WiFi.

What most of these places are doing are buying a cheap DSL line, sticking an access point on each floor, and hanging a banner out front (High speed Internet!). It's not high speed when every other guest in the hotel fires up their laptop at the same time and tries to download movie trailers.

Even emerging systems like WiMax, which has more bandwidth, is subject to the same problem--put too many users on one access point, and it's like being on an old-fashioned party line--you have to share with all your neighbors. All that bandwidth gets divided up, and not equally; it is more like first come-first serve, with bandwidth hogs getting a disproportionate share.

It is the tragedy of the commons, writ small.

We'll all have wireless devices, but trust me--we'll all want fiber to the home, too.

Rio Rancho, NM provides a model for citywide wireless

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2005 - 11:27

Here is an excellent article full of details about the citywide wireless project in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Rio Rancho is a fast-growing suburb of Albequerque. Here is the quote that shows that Rio Rancho leaders "get it."

"We see it as an economic development tool—today's business needs good quality access, Palenick said [the city administrator].

That's exactly right. It's an economic development tool, just as water and sewer were (and still are) economic development tools in the Manufacturing Economy of 40 years ago. It's not some esoteric luxury for a few privileged residents, WiFi is part of a package of services that can both bring businesses to a community and/or help existing businesses lower costs and expand services and markets. It can also help fuel the growth of home-based entreprenueurial businesses and startups.

Quizno's offers free WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2005 - 10:39

According to Dave Winer, Quizno's has free WiFi at their 3300 U.S. stores. When companies like this are making the substantial investment needed to deliver the service, it's passed from the realm of a nice amenity for a few techno-geeks and has entered the realm of the ordinary.

But to make WiFi really work for a community, a community approach is needed so that it is widely available, not just at one store out by the main road. What is your community doing?

WiFi in Texas state parks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/28/2004 - 12:07

Texas continues to be a leader in rolling out public WiFi. Several months ago, the state announced it was going to offer WiFi at highway rest stops. Now it will also offer it in some state parks. The reasons are shrewd--state officials have decided to invest to boost tourism among some very narrowly targeted groups that want more access while out in the parks, with birders and "snowbirds," the winter RV crowd among those mentioned.

The article also has some interesting stats on the deployment of WiFi, the costs, and who is using it.

WiFi and cellphones: Dueling technologies?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/22/2004 - 11:03

Esme Vos at MuniWireless thinks that the real reason behind Verizon's fevered opposition of community wireless in Philadelphia is that Verizon is terrified of cheap VoIP over WiFi.

I'm inclined to agree. I've been saying for a while that the whole cellular marketplace is in deep trouble. The cellular companies are frantically trying to lash overpriced and relatively low bandwidth (a few hundred kilobits) data services onto a system never designed to deliver data (just like they are frantically trying to squeeze more data onto legacy copper systems). Meanwhile, WiFi already delivers megabit data services effortlessly, and VoIP works pretty well in a well-designed WiFi network.

Why would you settle for inadequate and expensive cellular if cheap WiFi services are available throughout your area?

Like the problem that the cable and phone companies face with their outdated copper systems, the cellular companies face the same discontinuity with cellular--how do make the jump (i.e. copper to fiber, cellular to WiFi) without losing your customer base and your investments in the old system?

A company that understands competition and has a corporate culture of competition would figure that problem out and be determined to compete. But the phone companies have decided that rather than reform their own outdated corporate culture, they'll simply make it illegal for communities to chart their own future.

What's the root problem here? It's lawmakers who are not adequately informed about the community and economic development issues at stake. Which is why I've always said broadband is not a technology issue, it's an education issue. Communities and regions need to make sure their elected leaders are educated on these issues.

Want to get started? It's easy. Organize a local "Take a lawmaker to lunch" program and have a rotating group of folks who are well-versed with the issues take lawmakers to lunch once a month. In a year, I guarantee you will have had a significant impact.

"The real estate is the hard part"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/29/2004 - 09:10

This New York Times article is worth a read, despite the ad you have to click through (and NYT registration is required). It's about companies that are beginning to deploy WiMax.

The article helps dispel some of the hype, like the frequently quoted "up to 30 miles" range, which is actually about half that most of the time.

On the first page of the article, one of the owners of the profiled company confirms something I have been saying for years, that "The real estate is the hard part of the business." If communities would make very modest investments in identifying where to put antennas, provide easy permitting to mount antennas on public facilities, procure tower sites, and put up towers, it would be easy to get private sector companies to come in and offer affordable wireless broadband.

But you can't have it both ways. Too many communities complain about the lack of affordable broadband, but don't want to spend any money to get it. In smaller markets (i.e. virtually all rural communities), it is naive to expect every wireless provider to come in and make substantial investments in site surveys, permits, buy or lease real estate, and invest in towers.

Make all those available easily as community infrastructure. By doing so, the community can dramatically lower the cost of market entry for private providers.

And just to be clear, none of those investments involve getting into the service side of the telecom business, if you live in a state where the legislature has prohibited that.

On the second page of the article is another bit of information that also includes something that I have been warning communities about for years: cable redundancy. The WiMax company has a major business vulnerability because a key location has no alternate cable route. Every commun

Does WiFi work?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:15

In the Telecomm Cities mailing list, Barry Drogin wrote:

The ugly thing here is that in the short term, these [WiFi] deployments will work,
just like shared-media Ethernet networks worked well in the 1980's. But at
some point, user density gets so high that the protocols break down. They
spend more time recovering from errors than they do transmitting good data.
For Ethernet, switches saved the day. But for wireless, that won't work.

I call cheap WiFi the "pizza lady" model. In the grocery store, a little old lady hands out little pieces of pizza, saying, "Try this, it's good!"

WiFi is way of getting dial up users to move at low cost to broadband. What I tell communities is that WiFi will sell fiber. As more and more users crowd on to WiFi, the bandwidth degrades, but by then, people are hooked on broadband, and can't live without the pizza, er, bandwidth.

So they are more willing to support community fiber projects.

WiFi is not THE solution. It is A solution. Fiber is also a solution. There is no one transport mechanism that will satisfy everything we want to do.

Light poles are worth $7,666

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/27/2004 - 08:51

The New York Times (registration required) has an interesting article on municipal WiFi and the role of local government in jumpstarting broadband access.

One nugget buried in the second page of the article is that the City of New York got $23 million in return for access to 3000 lightpoles in the city. Wireless providers will place antennas and small equipment boxes on the lightpoles. This means the value of the lightpoles is an astounding $7,666! I suspect the leases are probably for ten years, which brings the value down to $767 per year, that that still illustrates the potential for a pro-active local government to self-finance the transport layer of a modern telecommunications infrastructure in a community.

Philly plans world's largest mesh WiFi network

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/23/2004 - 14:37

Back in the early winter of this year, I wrote about the potential of a new generation of WiFi mesh network software and hardware to make it much easier to design and provision community wireless networks.

Philadelphia, which has been in the news recently for their announcement that they were looking at WiFi, has now released more details about their plans, which will include using mesh WiFi equipment to create a wireless blanket over most of the city (135 square miles). Only between 8 and 16 antennas will be needed per square mile.

Mesh networks are less expensive and are designed to be easy to deploy. Mesh networks also are fault tolerant. In a properly designed mesh, you can lost some antennas and equipment and most users will still be able to stay connected to the network.

Connected cities

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 09/10/2004 - 08:21

Over the past couple of weeks, three major cities in the U.S. have announced ambitious plans to extend connectivity of one kind or another. New York and Philadelphia are moving forward with plans to create wireless blankets over most of each city.

New York's plan is more ambitious. The city is looking at making virtually every lamppost available for WiFi and cellular telephone access. Part of what is driving this is money. Even at the modest fees the city says it will charge for the right to mount antennas, it represents new income to the municipal government. What is less clear is if the plan will succeed. Some elected officials and citizen groups have raised concerns about the amount of additional EMF radiation that will be propogated by the plan. Not everyone is keen to have 24 hour/day gigahertz frequency radiation emanating from an antenna just a few feet from their second floor apartment window.

Philadelphia's plan is to create a WiFi blanket throughout the core area of the city, to make the place tech friendly. Both cities will rely on the private sector to spend the money to do the work, and will simply put the ordinances and fee structure in place that will allow those companies to place antennas and equipment on public property.

The third city, Chicago, is planning to put 2000 remote control surveillance cameras throughout its neighborhoods and city streets, with the dual aim of curbing crime and providing better coverage of potential terrorist targets. The system will be tied directly into the 911 system, which will allow 911 operators to pull up real time video of a crime, fire, or accident in progress. In Chicago, some groups have raised concerns about the potential privacy issues related to such comprehensive surveillance. In the end, the city will probably have its way, as we have no constitutional guarantee to privacy in public places.

All these initiatives are mixed news for smaller and rural communities. On the one hand, these initiatives not only raise the bar for what kind of infrastructure is expected in our communities (i.e. WiFi blankets), but as this kind of infrastructure becomes commonplace, smaller communities especially lose any competitive advantage they may have had from early investments. That is to say, instead of touting public WiFi as an economic development advantage that other places do not have, public WiFi is now going to be increasingly seen as part of the base, required infrastructure--imagine trying to promote your community without a public sewer system in place.

Rural Wireless--not traditional "high tech" businesses

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/31/2004 - 07:42

USA Today wrote an article about a month ago that I just stumbled across that's worth a read if you live in a rural area. The article details some of the new breed of rural wireless ISPs (WISPs) that are changing the way broadband is delivered in rural communities.

I am constantly surprised at the number of people who believe rural farmers don't want or don't need broadband. It's a myth, pure and simple. An ag agent told me over a year ago that half the cattle in Virginia are sold over the Internet. I met a farmer in southern Illinois last year that had built his own WiFi network to connect up weather and moisture sensors on his three farms. As we sat in his 150 year old farmhouse, he pulled up real time weather information from his sensors; he checks moisture levels every day without having to waste time riding around--he is using technology on a family farm to be more efficient and increase production.

The USA Today articles chronicles the work of big and small wireless firms, with an emphasis on the small outfits. One used an old farm silo to mount the antennas that supplies broadband to his customers. Another got into the wireless business to sell off expensive excess bandwidth he needed to run his own business.

As you read this article, one thing you notice is that these are not typical Manufacturing Economy businesses. They are not building manufacturing plants and office buildings. They are not renting space in business or industrial parks. They are not even renting space in the local business incubator. Many are home-based.

Does your economic development strategy include: a) Identifying these businesses (clue: they aren't relocating to your area and are not in your business park), and b) Providing capital, business planning and management, and marketing assistance?

These are "classic" Knowledge Economy businesses; they don't fit any of the old business stereotypes.

TA Travel Centers map their WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/27/2004 - 12:45

Dave Winer points out that the TA Travel Centers have provided easy Web access to their car/truck stops with WiFi.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Winer is on a cross country road trip, and is choosing his evening stops based largely on the availability of WiFi, like so many other travelers these days.

The TA folks not only have a page of links, but each link takes you direct to more information about each page. Note that the location page and latitude and longitude on it. Why, you might ask? So that the ever-increasing number of cars and trucks with GPS-enabled travel direction systems can use that information to direct you right to TA Travel Center.

The TA folks get it--that travelers and truck drivers are jacked in and want to stop where they can get Internet access. How about your community? Have you mapped your hotspots? Is that hotspot map easy to find on your community portal? Have you provided GPS coordinates?

All this stuff is easy to do, and will provide direct benefits as more travelers stop in your community to spend their travel dollars.

Map your hotspots

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/25/2004 - 07:33

Dave Winer, who in many ways invented blogging, is on a coast to coast road trip. Guess what his number one complaint is? How hard it is to find hotspots at night so that he can get online and take care of work.

Everyone I've talked to in the past couple of months has laughingly agreed that they no longer care about hotel chains, frequent traveler points, or the quality of the breakfast buffet. One road warrior summed it up this way: "I'll sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, but I want broadband."

Hotels are catching on, and many chains now advertise their broadband access heavily. But others don't, and Winer's complaint is that it is too hard to find public hotspots. He wants local and regional maps he can pull up on the Web that identify where WiFi is available.

How does your community portal measure up? Can visitors quickly determine where the hotspots are in your community? How about your economic development Web site? Can your out of town relocation prospects find broadband access locations easily on your Web site?

A robust community portal, designed to meet the needs of visitors and economic development prospects, sends a strong message that your community "gets it." I still visit too many communities complaining about their lack of jobs and lack of economic development activity, but a quick check of the Web often reveals the following: no county Web site or a very limited one that looks like it was last updated in 1998; no community portal or a mediocre "tourist brochure" approach that is mostly pretty pictures and little information. Or the worst of all--dueling Web sites that all claim to be the "official" community portal. The latter situation is a clear signal that the community lacks leadership and direction.

The community portal is the world's window into your community. How your community portal portrays your schools, your civic organizations, your recreational activities, and the business life of your community counts.

WiFi phone booths

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/12/2004 - 19:37

Telstra, the Australian phone company, is putting WiFi hotspots in phone booths.

It's a good idea. The phone booths are underused, with so many cellphones now in use. The booths are already in public places where people tend to gather, and they have the one thing that often makes placing a hotspot costly--a wired connection. Telstra can use the existing cable to deliver a DSL line to the WiFi equipment in the booth, and the booth itself can be used to mount an antenna.

Roanoke Airport ahead of Atlanta, Charlotte

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 07/12/2004 - 06:32

The Roanoke airport deserves kudos for providing free WiFi access while bigger airports like Atlanta and Charlotte still don't offer this service. Like it or not, WiFi in public places is fast becoming just another amenity, like rest rooms, water fountains, and sidewalks.

Why don't airports like Atlanta and Charlotte have it yet? Probably because they are trying to figure out how to make a buck from it, and have doubtless been reviewing dozens of proposals offering to install the equipment for free in return for an exclusive (and extortionate) franchise. I've written before about the absurd day rates for WiFi, which average $10/day. Frequent travelers, who might be on the road ten days a month or more, are apparently expected to pay hundreds of dollars a month just to get fifteen or twenty minutes access per day.

The companies providing this access market it as "24 hours" of service, knowing full well no one is ever able to do that. I'll be in the Philadelphia airport today for about an hour--why would I pay for 24 hours of access.

Fee-based WiFi is not likely to grow rapidly until the WiFi companies agree to allow roaming. At that point, hundreds of thousands of existing WiFi users will happily pay $30-40/month for nationwide roaming service. In the meantime, most of us will skip the silly rates and look for futures-oriented places like the Roanoke Airport.

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