WiFi and wireless

Free WiFi has its limits

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.

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Michigan muni wireless project

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."

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VoIP works just fine at 80 mph

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.

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Motorola to build Skype cellphones

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

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.

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Hands off WiFi

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).

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Muni wireless: friends and foes

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).

The future of WiFi

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.

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Rio Rancho, NM provides a model for citywide wireless

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].

Quizno's offers free WiFi

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?

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WiFi in Texas state parks

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.

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WiFi and cellphones: Dueling technologies?

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.

"The real estate is the hard part"

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

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Does WiFi work?

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.

Light poles are worth $7,666

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

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Philly plans world's largest mesh WiFi network

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.

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Connected cities

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

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

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.

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Map your hotspots

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.


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