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February 22, 2007

Municipal WiFi Projects in the U.S. - Part 3 of 3

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Associate Editor

<< BACK to Part 2
In this third and final section of a three-part series about municipal WiFi projects in the U.S., we look at how network speeds affect their use and popularity, and what may lie ahead for wide-area WiFi (News - Alert) deployments.

Speed Demon
In order to optimize the usefulness of a WiFi network for residents, government and businesses alike—be they paying subscribers or free users—the speed capabilities of the network must be carefully planned for and upgraded as need be. Else, users may simply write it off as outdated technology.
When asked about common pitfalls cities fall into when planning WiFi networks, bandwidth made Vos’ shortlist.
"One pitfall I see is cities not pushing for higher bandwidths," she said. Most seem stuck at 1 Mbps, which is too slow to deliver some services.
Why should this be? As usual, it comes down to money.
"The price of bandwidth in the United States is much higher than in Japan," she said. The cost of backhaul seems a likely reason why cities aren't looking at faster speeds.
Despite the cost, if the network doesn’t offer high enough bandwidth, it will be next to useful for some users—such as police, fire and emergency service agencies where bandwidth-hungry applications may abound.
So how fast is fast enough? That depends on what people are using the network for. Hanley said that, if most people are using the network for e-mail, bandwidth probably won’t be an issue. But if they are using it to beam media for one device to another—such as photos from a desktop computer to a TV—lower levels of bandwidth could be prohibitive.
Vos thinks anything less than 3 Mpbs is short-sighted because video is hot and will only get hotter in the future.
“You can’t do mobile video with crappy bandwidth,” she said.
Hanley noted that the increasing number of people who use portable devices, such as laptop computers and converged handsets, is a key growth enabler for the WiFi industry. Dual-mode handsets are an interesting example of how portability and WiFi are intersecting to increase bandwidth demands.
One advantage of dual-mode handsets is the ability to use a WiFi hotspot for downloading media faster than is possible over a cellular network. At the high end, Hanley said, cellular modems offer speeds in the 500 Kbps range. That can be compared to 25-50 Mbps WiFi potentially can deliver.
Let’s emphasize that word: potential. WiFi speeds of 25-50 Mbps are achievable, but do rely on the density of access point coverage, and how many people are using the network at a given time.
Hanley used the The Mountain View network as an example; it provides speeds of about 1 Mpbs downstream and 500 Kpbs upstream. That is much less than WiFi can provide in the home, where bandwidth is more like 25 Mpbs on the high end.
Looking Ahead
With the WiFi fever that seems to have infected so many U.S. cities, it seems prudent to ask the question posed, in various forms, throughout this article: what is the most sustainable business model for a municipal WiFi project?
There is no easy answer, since no one model will work in all locations. But some of the concerns about currently employed funding methods—relying too heavily on service providers and ad revenue, for example—do seem to keep cropping up.
To emphasize his concern about the way many cities have approached WiFi projects, Settled cited the example of the Portland, Oregon project where MetroFi was selected as the provider, but then had one of its capital venture supporters (Sevin Rosens) pull out last fall.
Settles noted that MetroFi underwote the Portland project with an ad-driven business model, which he worries won’t be enough for sustainability without the backing of Sevin Rosens, especially given that the provider is a small company and has several WiFi projects going on the West coast.
“If a company starts to go south, a venture capitalist is going to cut its losses,” Settles said shortly after the pull-out was announced. “Clearly, Sevin Rosens is saying that there’s no future here.”
Maybe no future in that particular project, but that hardly should be an indictment of all WiFi projects. Vos brushed aside concerns that the Portland network might eventually go under, since AT&T (News - Alert) is now involved and will keep it going because it has a vested interest in making things work out.
Hanley echoed that sentiment with her opinion that, although the Portland project may have taken some twists and turns, it is hardly indicative of a larger trend. After all, she said, the WiFi industry is one that, in a few years, is expected to ship half a billion units annually.
“This is not a fad,” she said. “This is a very popular and proven technology. It’s very cost-effective.”
If nothing else, WiFi certainly is popular and looks to become only more so in the future (ABI, for example, predicts that 126,000 square miles in America will be covered by WiFi in 2010). Hanley said there are 120,000 registered WiFi hotspots nationwide, and that number is shy of actual deployment; access points are so easy to set up that many hotspots simply aren’t reported.
She also cited figured from the American Hotel Lodging Association that 82 percent of hotels in the U.S. now offer WiFi—more than the number offering voicemail or recently upgraded their bedding.
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 Mae Kowalke previously wrote for Cleveland Magazine in Ohio and The Burlington Free Press in Vermont. To see more of her articles, please visit Mae Kowalke’s columnist page. Also check out her Wireless Mobility blog.


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