WiFi Are we jumping the gun or taking the lead in Orange County?

City wireless networks

With all of the media attention to the upcoming general election there is a major effort underway across the County to provide WiFi service. For that reason I thought to share two articles. The first from the March 27th issue of Information Week and a more recent story quoting New York Senator Charles Shumer that appeared in Newsday on Oct 17th. Newsday being a local Long Island, NY newspaper. Anaheim has already entered into a WiFi agreement and other cities are currently getting proposals to add this latest technology for their residents and businesses. WiFi service can easily be found at coffee shops where you can sit with your laptop, drink a latte or cup of coffee, and connect to the outside world. Although it is nice to be on the “cutting edge” have we truly checked to see what alternatives may soon become available? Are our city council’s entering into long term agreements that we may later regret? Will adding the required boxes onto light poles in themselves add to or create “blight” in our cities? Please joint the debate! Thanks. Larry

“Down To Business: The Economics Of Metro Wi-Fi

Forget the political and social squabbles. City wireless networks will thrive or falter based on how efficiently they scale and perform.

By Rob Preston

Mar 27, 2006 12:00 AM
My 10th grade European History teacher, the always-riveting Sister Ann Kathleen Bolton, would size up the importance of major historical movements based on their political, economic, and social causes and consequences. By this rough measure, depending on where you sit, municipal Wi-Fi is either the Renaissance or Bubonic Plague of our information technology times.

The city officials, equipment vendors, service providers, and others leading the Wi-Fi charge in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere talk about closing the “digital divide” among city residents while cutting departmental communications costs and boosting the productivity of civil servants. Incumbent carriers, Wi-Fi skeptics, and policy critics argue that governments–notoriously bad at filling potholes, much less providing emergency and other complex services–have no business managing bleeding-edge wireless network projects. As with most technology and civic controversies, the truth falls somewhere between these extremes.

The politics of metro Wi-Fi center on special interests: the incumbent wireless carriers that want to protect their licensed monopolies or duopolies; the equipment makers that need fat contracts to pay for their R&D; the mayors and other elected officials who want to primp progressive for their constituents; as well as the state and national legislators taking mostly ideological sides. The societal issues revolve around whether affordable Internet access is a consumer or business necessity that demands some level of government assistance, or whether it’s just another commercial good that’s subject to supply and demand.

The political and social squabbles are just background noise compared with the economics of metro Wi-Fi. If the economics of rolling out thousands of access points in congested cities prove compelling, critics don’t have much of a case. But if the economics break down because these networks perform poorly or don’t scale efficiently, metro Wi-Fi doesn’t have a political or social leg to stand on.

The economic arguments aren’t as black and white. In places where there isn’t much broadband competition, Wi-Fi holds great promise. Chaska, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, offers cheap broadband wireless service to its 20,000 residents over a Wi-Fi mesh network run by a public-private partnership. In Tempe, Ariz., a local provider is extending a Wi-Fi mesh network beyond the Phoenix suburb’s municipal agencies to its 200,000 residents and university students. So far, so good, in both instances.

But in places that aren’t Podunk small like Chaska or tortilla flat like Tempe, the potential for radio interference and signal degradation can’t be ignored. As my colleague J. Nicholas Hoover reported, Houston’s planners are ratcheting back their expectations for technical reasons (“City Wi-Fi Sounds Great, If It Can Really Connect,” Feb. 27; informationweek.com/ 1078/wifi.htm). In their recent request for Wi-Fi proposals, they state that coverage need reach only perimeter rooms and up to the second floors of buildings–hardly the ubiquitous access promised by the technology’s promoters.

Meantime, big city Wi-Fi networks, because of the sheer volume and power output of their access points, can interfere with smaller-footprint Wi-Fi networks already in place, experts say. And because the metro Wi-Fi industry is so immature, cities are locking themselves into pre-standard systems, mostly from small vendors. Market leader Tropos Networks (see Community Feedback, p. 8), for one, is a venture-backed startup, and while some cities have tapped mainstream operators such as EarthLink to build and run their Wi-Fi networks, others are relying on relative newcomers.

Ubiquitous broadband communications is a worthy public policy goal–to serve underserved citizens, cut municipal costs, and promote overall economic vitality. But don’t equate a solution to a problem to the solution. Big city Wi-Fi may very well be the real deal, but a few intrepid municipalities may have to make some costly mistakes before we know for sure.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief

  Oct 24, 2006
Long Island

Schumer eyes Islandwide WiFi bill

Newsday Staff Writer

October 17, 2006

Sen. Charles Schumer said yesterday he’ll seek $5 million in federal funds to help build a high-speed wireless Internet network in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference at Stony Brook University that he’ll introduce the legislation during the post-election “lame duck” congressional session. He said he does not expect lawmakers to approve the funding prior to next year’s appropriations bill.

“We hope to have the money by Oct. 1 of next year,” he said.

The ultimate goal is to offer Long Islanders wireless Internet access from the Queens border to Montauk, said both Schumer and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy. But officials have yet to decide how that ambitious network would work.

Levy proposed building a wireless network in his county earlier this year.

Holding two fingers inches apart, Levy said the county is “this close” to issuing requests for proposals from private companies seeking to build the network.

Yet he said county officials have yet to determine whether the network will function like a cable franchise, which becomes the sole operator, or allow for a number of Internet providers to sell services on the system.

Levy said he expected the WiFi network to be built without direct local tax money. The broadband companies, he said, would recoup their investments through advertising and user fees.

The network would be built using technology akin to cell phone transmitters. The WiFi towers would be built on county property, to which the companies would gain access for free, Levy said.

“We give them our property, they give us the capital investment,” Levy said. “It shouldn’t have to cost taxpayers anything locally.”

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Thanks to the authors of both articles.
Larry Gilbert

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