WiFi and wireless

New MeshCube the shape of things to come

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/29/2004 - 08:33

The recently announced MeshCube is an immature product--the Web site needs more and better information--but it is the shape of things to come in the WiFi world. The MeshCube is three inches square. It can have two radios installed (one for local point to multipoint access--the typical hotspot use, and one for point to point longer distance access to an Internet feed). It can be powered by POE (Power Over Ethernet), meaning you don't have to run 120 VAC to it, just a simple low voltage Ethernet cable, making it easy to install outside.

The power requirements are so low it could also be powered by batteries and a solar panel, making it ideal for remote locations. The "mesh" part of MeshCube means that you can easily create a wiFi Zone (multiple access points) with just one or two Internet feeds; the MeshCubes talk to each other and can share Internet acess. This dramatically lowers the cost of a wide area WiFi zone. The software is based on Open Source, which keeps the price low.

The small size means these can be inobtrusively mounted throughout a downtown area; antenna design will vary according to needs, but even the larger WiFi antennas needed for point to point communications are small and barely noticeable on a rooftop. Communities, with a little help planning and laying out the network, could easily install their own WiFi zone covering a downtown area or a neighborhood. At a cost of about $300 per access point, self-help projects are easily fundable by passing the hat.

FCC: Any means any for wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/28/2004 - 09:37

A ruling by the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology is an echo of the Bristol, Virginia decision that "any" means "any."

Airports, malls, and condo associations, among others, have been trying to limit the use of WiFi, primarily for financial reasons. The mall owner or airport authority wanted the revenue sharing from providing exclusive access to the facility from a single vendor. It's a form of bandwidth aggregation that does not always benefit consumers because not everyone benefits equally--the WiFi vendor and the property owner have a controlling interest in setting fees and keep all the profits. Bandwidth aggregation as a thinly veiled monopoly rarely benefits consumers.

Airports, as frequent travelers know well, are notorius for high access fees, averaging $10/day for a typical fifteen or twenty minute use as you pass through. The FCC ruling says the FCC alone can determine who may or may not deploy unlicensed WiFi services. It's a victory for consumers, and the FCC deserves a tip of the hat for doing so.

Muncipal WiFi a worldwide trend

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/25/2004 - 08:42

An article in The Register provides a nice synopsis of the worldwide trend for municipalities to offer public WiFi. It's happening most often in the big cities first, where businesspeople congregate in public spaces more and expect Internet access.

The new mesh network WiFi equipment is making it much easier to create WiFi zones at less cost (there are some very good Open Source mesh network WiFi solutions). Mesh networks provide some redundancy and eliminate the need to have wired connectivity at each access point.

If rural and smaller communities want to attract microenterprise businesses and entrepreneurs who are making relocation decisions based in part on lifestyle choices, WiFi zones throughout the downtown area in these smaller communities is one inexpensive way to help get on the short list of relocation sites. If two communities both have good schools, a slower pace of life, and good recreation options, the community that is planning for technology and offers WiFi zones is much more likely to appear attractive to a relocating business. Public WiFi is an indicator of a progressive community that understands the needs of business. How does your community rate?

Spokane wireless to drive economic development

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/25/2004 - 08:21

The City of Spokane has rolled out a new wireless zone that covers most of the major downtown area (more than 100 square blocks). Rather than leaving the growth of WiFi entirely to the private sector, which typically leaves lots of dead zones in an urban downtown, the city mapped its own antenna sites and was able to cover the entire area with just ten antennas--a much more efficient design that provides virtually 100% coverage.

The city estimated the cost as a very affordable "$50,000 to $75,000." Meter maids and police in the zone will use WiFi-enabled devices and laptops to improve their efficiency, which over the long term should pay back the entire investment. The city also made the investment to attract more businesses to the downtown area.

WiFi phone

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/17/2004 - 13:51

Here is just one of several new phones that are WiFi only. These wireless Internet phones allow you to make voice phone calls anytime you are in a WiFi hotspot--yet another reason to sprinkle WiFi hotspots around your community.

I found this particular phone on the BroadVoice site, yet another Voice over IP startup that has inexpensive phone rates. Like Vonage, you get a little adapter box that you plug into your Ethernet hub/switch, and you plug a normal telephone into the adapter box--instant Voice over IP phone. You can take the box with you when you travel and make phone calls from your own phone number anywhere you can connect to the Internet.

One of the key drivers of VoIP technology will be this last feature, which is true number portability. In the future, we won't need to keep track of cellphone numbers and home phone numbers, or cell numbers and business numbers. We'll have a true portable phone number that we carry with us in our pocket, literally.

WiFi and warchalking as marketing

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/11/2004 - 09:04

Schlotzky's, the popular deli chain with hundreds of stores across the country, has been rolling out their free WiFi offering with great success, apparently. The original plan had been to provide it only to the company-owned stores (95% of the stores are owned by franchisees), but the popularity of the WiFi offering has attracted the attention of the franchise owners, who want it for their stores as well.

Part of Schlotzky's marketing campaign has included "warchalking," which the WiFi user community has adapted from the old markings hobos used during the Depression to indicate where a good place to get food was, or places to avoid. There is a simple set of symbols that are literally drawn in chalk on the sidewalks in front of locations where there is free WiFi.

Texas WiFi at rest stops

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 06/10/2004 - 12:55

A press release from the Texas Dept. of Transportation announces that they are going to put WiFi in all state-managed rest stops in Texas.

They have an interesting rationale. DOT believes it will help get people off the roads more frequently to take a break and rest. It makes sense to me. I drive a lot, and the ability to stop and check my business mail conveniently has a lot of appeal. WiFi marches on.

SBC to sell wireless at McDonald's

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/08/2004 - 10:27

SBC has inked a deal to sell WiFi at 6000 McDonald's fast food restaurants. Daily access will cost $7.95, and monthly access will cost $19.95.

The daily access cost is a bit silly. Who is going to buy a $5 meal and pay $8 to surf the Web while you drip special sauce on your keyboard?

The $19.95 monthly rate is more interesting. As a frequent traveler, it might well be worth it if I know I can walk into any McDonald's and get broadband access (without buying any food).

It may or may not sell many burgers for McDonald's. I don't think it will. As the reporter notes at the end of the article, the big winner may be SBC, who just sold 6000 DSL lines at the higher business class rate. My guess is this worth at least $10 million/year or more to SBC, and SBC is probably getting a big upfront payment to be the systems integrator and equipment supplier. It will be interesting to see if McDonald's is still providing this service in two years. Remember that "free WiFi" is never free; someone is always paying. If the service does not increase food sales, McDonald's will pull it.

If communities believe that affordable WiFi access, widely available, is important to local economic development initiatives, this demonstrates the problem of leaving it entirely to the private sector--it may or may not be available over the long term, and/or there may be many areas of the community that need it and may not have it.

It's hardly good economic development marketing to tell businesspeople that they should meet in McDonald's.

Nintendo handheld will drive WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/21/2004 - 08:21

Nintendo's new DS handheld will include WiFi. The successor to the wildly successful GameBoy will allow DS owners to play games with other nearby DS users and/or access the Internet via a WiFi hotspot.

That may sound ho-hum, but kids with WiFi devices will change the way we think about WiFi. Kids will want it at the candy store, at the gas station (download some new games while Dad is gassing up), at parks and recreation centers--in short, everywhere.

Communities should start thinking now about WiFi zones and WiFi blankets (collections of hotspots). And guess what? Whole families will want WiFi access, and many will happily pay for a family subscription.

Anything that expands the marketplace for services is a good thing. Along with that, we've also got to think about the implications of kids being connected to the Internet anywhere they go, and in many places where Mom and Dad can't supervise. It's a whole problem itself, and we need to think in parallel. We can't stop this new technology, but we do have an obligation, to our own families and children, and to the community at large, to make sure we use it sensibly, and that our kids are prepared to use these new information portals appropriately.

WiFi startup stops

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/20/2004 - 07:15

Cometa, a startup national WiFi hotspot firm, has shut down. Cometa was bankrolled by Intel, AT&T, and IBM, and planned to create 20,000 hotspots nationwide and wholesale them to other companies who would actually provide the end user service.

It was a good plan, but apparently poorly executed. No doubt the company was stuffed with execs from Intel, AT&T, and IBM, who apparently acted arrogantly and spent too much money too soon.

The problem with all of the firms planning national networks is twofold. First, WiFi will not take off, really take off, until there are widespread roaming agreements in place. Right now, if I'm at O'Hare in Chicago and want to check my mail via WiFi, I probably have to spend $10 for 15 minutes of access. Two hours later, in Omaha, some other company will want $10 for another 15 minutes. Even dumber, T-Mobile thinks I'll happily pay yet another $10 two days later as I pass back through o'Hare.

That's the state of WiFi right now. National roaming agreements, just the way cellphones can roam, where you pay a fixed monthly subscription, is the only thing that makes sense. Why are so many firms in the market despite the lack of roaming? Because WiFi is in a growth phase; for every customer who stops paying T-Mobile $10/day, two new ones pop up. It's exactly like the early days of dial-up modem access. But it won't last. Cometa is the first of many firms that will go out of business after wasting a lot of investor funds.

But I said there were two problems. The second is local, rather than national. Communities need ubiquitous WiFi to make it really useful, and just putting hotspots in hotels and McDonald's is not enough. Rural communities are especially unlikely to get much attention from the big national firms. The sensible approach is for communities to get involved in identifying appropriate antenna locations, mapping out a hotspot grid so that everyone in the community can get service, and in that fashion creating the incentives that will attract local and regional wireless providers to come into the market and sell services.

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