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Optical/IP Networks

What's Muni Wireless Good For?

As the debate over the EarthLink/Google municipal wireless project for San Francisco drags on in City Hall and in the local press, wireless-broadband consultant Greg Richardson, head of Civitium (which has helped draft the RFPs for many cities' WiFi projects, including San Francisco's) has weighed in with a blistering-yet-clearheaded blog post. Richardson says, essentially, that ideology has triumphed over both business sense and the common good in not only San Francisco but other cities building or considering municipal wireless networks.

At this point it's probably worth asking the question, "What are these networks good for anyway?"

The stated goals are obvious: economic development through advanced communications infrastructure, improved government efficiency, and greater equality of opportunity via technology (i.e., "bridging the digital divide").

It seems clear that, at least so far, only the second -- better government services thanks to mobile workers equipped with always-connected devices -- is a lock. Whether Plains, Ga., or Peoria, Ill. -- or even Petaluma, Calif. -- will attract new businesses and high-tech workers because they can offer a mostly reliable, nearly broadband-speed, outdoor wireless connection is a highly dubious proposition. It's mostly the civic equivalent of cup-holders in cars -- "We've got to have them because [insert rival carmaker here] has them!"

As for the digital divide, most networks now in deployment are finding that offering a free, residential service is either financially unrealistic or technically infeasible or both. And, at any rate, providing free Internet access to families who a) don't have computers and b) can't afford the customer-premises equipment to bring the signal indoors is an empty symbolic gesture.

Ultimately, the real value of the municipal WiFi networks spreading like algae across the land may be in their efficacy as testbeds for mobile infrastructure, applications, and services.

That's the conclusion of a new report from Oakland-based wireless consultant Craig Settles, head of Successful.com, who notes that "Government spending for mobile technology is outpacing small and medium-size enterprise (SME) spending, and this validates local governments’ potential value to suppliers." In other words, who else is going to pay you to put up WiFi mesh networks of 10, 25, or 50-plus square miles?

Even in cases like Portland, where networks provider MetroFi Inc. is footing the bill, the private entity has guarantees like free or low-rent access to city-owned infrastructure (i.e., lampposts) and "anchor tenant" provisions from the local government to make the build-out economically viable, at least in theory. (See Rollin' on the River.)

As muni wireless expert Glenn Fleishman, editor/publisher of WiFi Networking News, says about the huge Wireless Silicon Valley effort, "The project has emphasized public safety and personal access, but it was clear from the get-go that every form of wireless will get a work out, with Cisco and IBM having the opportunity to build systems that they could then sell worldwide."

This has happened before, with other communications technologies: Samuel Morse gave the public demonstration of the telegraph in 1838, but it took $30,000 in Congressional funding for an experimental line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore to convince the public, and investors, that the new system had a future.

The municipal systems now under construction are just that, experimental, and while their short-term value to today's consumers and businesses may be limited, their long-term worth to the network suppliers and providers of tomorrow will be incalculable.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

rconaway 12/5/2012 | 3:14:10 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? Are you saying that the only value for mesh technology is for testing technologies? Since we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars and both investment and tax dollars, don't you think that there would be a better, more cost effective test bed?

Mesh networks are the wrong answer to the governments inability to push the phone companies to developing high-speed infrastructure. I'm all for the free-market but telcom regulations did not allow the market to develop under true free market conditions, thus a huge gap between our wired infrastructure and the rest of the world. Mesh networking is a patch to get around the phone companies. Since nobody could invest in wired infrastructure to compete with local carriers, they assumed wireless carriers could.

Unfortunately, mesh networking is crippled by the fact that 2.4GHz was never designed to be a city wide communication system. Too low power, too high-frequency, and the interference all conspire to make deployment too difficult, too expensive, and too slow. Then the government in it's infinite wisdom says to the WISP mesh companies, we want free everywhere for everybody. Silly business plans that try to use advertising as a revenue tool tried to find alternative ways around this free model but to date, everybody in this market except for the engineering and installation companies, are losing tons of money.

The questions that need to be asked are who needs what type of connectivity and what are they willing to pay for it. Focus the right technology to the right application. Quit trying to make a system that is everything to everybody. Unless someone is willing to donate it, the taxpayers shouldn't be paying for it and the mesh companies should be allowed to make a profit, if the market exists. A lot of these cities that wanted free are going to be totally embarrassed when the companies go out of business or new technologies come out to obsolete it before they ever come close to making their money back. This will then require a whole new round of money losing business plans to keep them alive and the cycle continues.
dan'l 12/5/2012 | 3:14:09 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? All good points, however, I really get a chuckle out of the consultant who "weighs in with a blistering clear headed blog" after he helps set the RFP, which I assume he got paid $$$ to do. If this is the case, where is your investigative duty? Why haven't you called him out on this fact? Or perhaps you have some financial stake as well??!!
MetroNetIQ 12/5/2012 | 3:14:08 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? I just finished reading Richard's commentary, and I had to respond, I mean, c'mon, what an invitation - "What's Muni Wireless Good For?"

Let me try to start a little list here of what Muni Wireless is good for... I'll limit the list to three items, but continue it on my website later (www.metronetiq.com). This is just too good an invitation to ignore. :)

1. Muni Wireless provides a stimulus for national debate on broadband. Without Muni Wireless, we're not having this debate (or we're having a different, less robust discussion). Quite simply, muni wireless has served a valuable role as a catalyst to stimulate progress in developing a vital technology infrastructure for our nation, prodding comfortable incumbents to action ahead of their - shall we say, "slow" - schedules.

Without Muni Wireless, discussion of broadband could well be limited to backroom deals in Washington between Big Telecom, Big Cable, and the FCC, the way itGÇÖs always been. At a minimum, the discussion would be more limited and less colorful. And we would get whatever "they" decided we would get, on their timetable, not ours.

Starting with Philadelphia's Digital Divide discussion in 2004, and the Verizon-backed legislation ban it spawned, Muni Wireless moved the debate up to a timetable driven not by comfortable, short-term-oriented telecom and cable incumbents, but by impatient, progressive city leaders. And that's progress.

2. Muni Wireless provides us a vision in the absence of national leadership. Say what you will about the faults of Muni Wireless, it has done more with very little than could ever have been expected, and it is a visionary, if still, a flawed concept. City leaders are doing all they can with what they have to work with - it may fall short of some people's standards, but give these pioneers credit for stepping out with a leadership vision and taking action. We all know the value of beta software releases, why not look at muni wireless that way? It is improving over time.

We're certainly not getting much vision from our purported national leaders, whether it's the FCC, the Congress, the President and the Executive Branch, or the incumbent telcos, wireless companies, and cable companies. Why is it that we sit and watch S. Korea, Japan, Singapore, Finland, France, and who knows who else race ahead of the US with clear broadband policies elaborated by national government leaders, while we in the US settle for less, much less, where our FCC defines broadband as "over 200 Kbs" and qualifies an entire zip code as having broadband when only one household in the Zip Code has access...huh? Talk about setting a low bar for success by incumbents.... thatGÇÖs not leadership in anyoneGÇÖs book.

We get what we get from powerful interests because they do what they want because they can, when there are no alternatives - and there was nobody to stop them - until the alternative of Muni Wireless came along. The powers-that-be set a very low bar for success, progress was just not happening, and in response, some municipal leaders stepped up and said, "We can do better," and launched municipal wireless plans. What's so wrong with that? Why are so many ready to criticize it and so slow to acknowledge progress?

3. Muni Wireless gives us all a Straw Man to Consider (and one that also Embarrasses Incumbents and Powers That Be and Stimulates a Response). Wi Fi Mesh is an adaptation of an indoor technology that leverages a tiny sliver of unlicensed spectrum to do amazing things. (Let's face it, the 2.4 GHz band is a crumb thrown to innovators by the FCC - "take it, the baby monitors and microwave ovens won't mind.") This from a group of regulators seemingly eager to squeeze every last dime out of every last Hz of spectrum in "competitive" auctions, so competitive that everyone knows at the start of the auction that one of a small group of large, mostly non-innovative service providers will win in the end. So cynical.

When it takes billions of dollars to win a slice of spectrum, only the big guys will last and win. Small muni wireless innovators have done more with a little bit of unlicensed spectrum and an GÇ£indoorGÇ¥ technology than big huge companies managed to do with all kinds of resources and all kinds of time: they kicked off numerous aggressive, GÇ£riskyGÇ¥ last mile projects and stimulated progress and national debate on broadband infrastructure.

So far, not a whole lot of public funds have been spent on Municipal Wireless projects, but the industry sure has generated a lot of press and speculation given the POTENTIAL of public expenditures and activism. Recently, muni wireless attorney Jim Baller commented on the need for a national broadband policy - AMEN. Jim's been out there for a long, long time saying what needs to be said on this topic, but I bet his audience is considerably larger now that there's a national debate stimulated by Muni Wireless projects initiated by city government pioneers.

I commented on Jim's call for a National Broadband Policy on my website (www.MetroNetIQ.com), and I recollected that there once was a time in the 1960s when we had a national community pulling together on a visionary project (The Space Race). Back then, we a) engaged in a national debate on a vital strategic program; b) had visionary leadership that set a goal and pulled a nation together behind a spectacular vision GÇô and what a stretch goal!; and c) had large companies that got behind our national goal and contributed (and benefited) - we all pulled together, we succeeded, and we went to the Moon! Sighh...we don't have that today.

Absent the Muni Wireless movement calling for more and better last mile broadband, I'm not sure we would have this current debate, this vision, or this prod to spur incumbent action.

Space and decorum limit my comments, but I could go on and on about what Municipal Wireless is good for. In the end, even if it ends up only being good to shine the light on the issue of broadband infrastructure and motivate those who should be active to get busy, then it will have served its purpose and it can fade away, to be replaced by superior technologies.

At the dawn of electric light, at the end of the 19th Century, back when Broadway earned the nickname "The Great White Way" because of the bright, bright lights from arc lights - we were easier to please back then - back then, nobody challenged the fact that arc lights weren't as soft and convenient as incandescent bulbs would ultimately be. They marveled at the light and wonder of it all, at progress. Let us marvel now, for a little while, at our progress, meager as it may seem, and then work together to improve on it.

I believe muni wireless will yet surprise us all, if we give this experiment time to play out. It will ultimately be a part of a larger solution that will also include other technologies like fiber broadband, WiMAX, 3G, 4G, etc. Now that the cat is out of the bag, there are innumerable dedicated and motivated local government officials equipped with a tool to push out the envelope and experiment and challenge the status quo, and I don't think any of us can predict where this movement will take us in five years. Thanks to billions of Wi Fi client devices, not to mention a lasting need for broadband in small towns and third world countries, Wi Fi mesh and muni wireless won't go away anytime soon.

And thanks to our Muni Wireless pioneers, and their oh-so-flawed but innovative projects, we're off on a journey. And that's a pretty good start, compared to where we were before.
IPobserver 12/5/2012 | 3:14:07 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? Just FYI, we're hosting a webinar on this topic tomorrow at Noon EST.

WiMax, Wireless Mesh & Muni Networks
http://www.unstrung.com/webina...

For what it's worth, I'm think you need service providers to get involved in municipal network projects via "public/private partnerships"... a corny phrase, I know.
MetroNetIQ 12/5/2012 | 3:14:07 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? My response to your argument is "So What." If local government representatives spend "millions," as you say, and I'm not ready to concede that point yet, but even if they do, and even if there are early failures and the money spent ends up being wasted, so what.

Yep, that's how local government works. Local government leaders can take risks with their people's money, and sometimes the risks won't pan out. Where is the indignant attitude when a local government grants tax rebates to bring in a large employer, or build a pro sports stadium? Both of those are common practices, far more widespread than muni wireless. Is that money always well spent? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Cities do this type of spending all the time, and if/when a project goes south, then that city may certainly be embarrassed (not the end of the world), and the voters always have the opportunity to throw the bums out in the next election.

What's wrong with that? Sounds like healthy risk taking and progress to me. Here below are a couple of positive things that you overlook in your criticism of Muni Wireless.

1. Each municipal wireless network deployed provides a learning opportunity for an entire industry. The smart followers will learn from the leaders and avoid the same mistakes, and the number of successful projects will grow and outnumber early failures. A portfolio approach lets us all spread the risk of adopting a new technology and figure out how to best make it work. There will be business models that will be proven out in a couple more years (I'm not betting on the Free model or the advertising model, BTW).

2. Most city governments are leaning on the private sector to share the project risk, and leveraging one or more public sector applications to improve city government operations and provide a faster financial recovery for the private sector partner. Many are starting with smaller trial projects and moving slowly into the field, adjusting their plans as they learn more.

3. Show me the "millions of taxpayer dollars" being spent in this industry. It's just not the case that the waste you say is happening is happening. I believe you are projecting a worse case scenario and discounting benefits that will accrue in order to make your point.

4. Cities look at a longer term horizon on projects like this, and they judge project success differently than private sector players.

5. Unlicensed mesh networks may well have all the technological problems you mention, and still be a success. They just may not warrant all the excitement and hype we currently see from industry promoters.

I believe we are still very early in this game, and that we will know more about the outcome with more evidence. I think that the extreme positions on either side will be disproven, as hype is discredited and overwrought criticism proves to be too harsh. Muni Wireless may not prove to be a smash hit, but I believe it will become an important part of our nation's incremental progress to extend last mile broadband.

IPobserver 12/5/2012 | 3:14:04 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? ThereGÇÖs a good document about the San Francisco project here:
http://www.sfgov.org/site/uplo...

The document is titled:
Fiscal Feasibility Analysis of a Municipally-Owned Citywide Wireless Broadband Network Prepared for the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco by the San Francisco Budget Analyst (January 11, 2007)

ItGÇÖs interesting that U.S. local government appears to work in much the same way as in the U.K.
rconaway 12/5/2012 | 3:13:55 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? Although I work with several city governments on wireless technologies, I have not been paid to do a single 2.4GHz public mesh network. In fact, I believe that most consultants that I have met don't even really understand the technology past a basic level nor do they have any clue about RF engineering. I believe there are better are far more cost effective ways to deliver bandwidth than the ridiculous costs per user associated with mesh.

I'm not totally against the concept of mesh networks. My problem is that government should not be paying for it. It's also not appropriate for every are due to the costs associated with it. If we are going to get mesh, have private industry pay for it, tell governments to quit asking companies to give it away for free, and silly companies that are trying to make money on advertising should tell their shareholders, they screwed up and we need to be charging for this. All of this is business basics 101. Government should not be paying for this. If they want to do anything right, the pass some laws to assist in the phone and cable companies into installing fiber everywhere and upgrading their backbones.
IPobserver 12/5/2012 | 3:13:54 PM
re: What's Muni Wireless Good For? Not to get into the economics and politics of all thisGǪ but I saw some data (provided by a vendor) from a suburban WiFi mesh network in the U.S. GÇô this network was forwarding substantially more than 100 GB of traffic per day (mostly You Tube & stuff).

This totally outstrips whatGÇÖs happening in cellular data networks. One data point for an operator in one of West EuropeGÇÖs big five markets is a network pushing 70 GB per day across an entire country. HSPA hasnGÇÖt kicked in yet, but stillGǪ
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