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Prague forced to scale back on free Wi-Fi network? Time magazine reports on the spread of Wi-Fi and wireless data in Europe, and notes that the EC told Prague in May to "tone down its proposed $16 million free wi-fi [sic] initiative by stripping out full Internet access" and offering just public services. The EU Competition Commissioner said that broadband is the province of private firms unless there's a "well-defined market failure."
Today's version 1.1.1 firmware update for the Apple iPhone turns on the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store: The store's name describes its limitations, recall. It's for Wi-Fi, not EDGE; it's music, not video. Within those limitations, the service is pretty grand. Those who bought the iPod touch a few days have already seen how it works, but this is my first exposure. The interface is just as nifty as the rest of the iPhone. (Apple is slick enough to have a well-produced and inoffensive video demonstration from Mr. iPhone, a very calm fellow who performed on the initial iPhone video demo. I hope he releases a sleep tape, too.)
You click the iTunes logo on the home screen of the iPhone, and--as long as you're connected to a Wi-Fi network--see a list of featured songs. You can browse by genre, look at top 10 lists by genre, or get to the heart of it by clicking Search. The Search screen unexpectedly shows a blank page with a search field at the top. Apple should improve the UI here to give some indication that something didn't just go wrong, which was my impression.
As you start typing in the search field, options are displayed immediately, a nice feature that relies on a Web 2.0-like mechanism, surely (it's very AJAXy). It also means that you avoid tediously typing, entering, retyping, correcting. If you get it wrong, you just deleted a character and re-enter, and see the new choices as you type.
The results are intelligently displayed, showing artists and album names. Select one, and you see the results sorted into Albums at the top and Songs below. Two albums are shown with a prompt to see more if there are; 25 songs are displayed, and a link to view another 25.
Tap a song, and a 30-second preview starts to play. Tap the price to the right, and it flips around to display Buy Song. Tap that, and you're prompted to log in with your iTunes Store password (not sure how often you're prompted for that password; iTunes itself only stores it for a period of time, although that behavior can be changed through preferences). After entering your password, a red marker jumps--it's pretty animation--down into the Downloads icon at the bottom, and the song begins to download.
When you dock your iPhone (or iPod touch) the next time, music purchased is synchronized back.
Apple's changed the face of digital music buying. Again. When will they stop? Oh, yeah, Amazon entered the market this week with a beta version of their DRM-free MP3 store with prices 30 to 40 cents lower than comparable unprotected tracks from Apple. But you'll have to buy those songs at a computer, not on an iPhone.
Pithy, terse, cogent: Tim Wu on muni-Fi fail: If you want a city-wide network, and it's useful to the city, the city may need to pony up. The money sentence: "Private municipal wireless networks have to compete against competitors with better infrastructure who paid off their capital investments years ago." I'd also note that the competitors are highly subsidized, regulatorily protected, and have monopoly positions, to boot. Wu cites St. Cloud, Flor., as a success story, but the numbers aren't the whole story; read the current mayor's comment on MuniWireless from March 2007.
Martin Zaimov is running for mayor of Sofia, Bulgaria, on the free Wi-Fi platform: The candidate, described in this Sofia News Agency article as right wing, promises free Wi-Fi within a month in 100 locations in the city. There are 400,000 Internet users in Sofia, the article states. Isn't that a form of vote buying?
St. Paul, Minn., wants fiber: A trend? Comcast and Qwest oppose the move: "'Government-run broadband networks are risky ventures that often rely on overly optimistic subscriber and revenue projections. When the networks fail to meet financial goals, the taxpayers get stuck with the bill,' said Andrew Schriner, Qwest's director of public policy." I love the smell of industry-funded-think-tank reports in the morning.
Chicago expands surveillance system with wireless links: Firetide's gear was tapped to extend the fiber-backed infrastructure that runs Operation Virtual Shield--something with a name like that must be fantastic!--a system of video surveillance that tracks traffic and analyzes inputs for suspicious patterns across parts of the city. I'm not a fan of the police state with Big Brother watching us, but I do like my personal safety. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs... (For more information on this topic, read Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, or, for that matter, any Philip K. Dick novel.)
The TJX credit card number theft was inevitable, a report states: The privacy commissioner of Canada released a report on the theft enabled by Wi-Fi of as many as 45m credit-card numbers along with other personal information from TJX, the parent company of TJ Maxx and Marshall's. The commissioner said that too much information was stored for too long, and was "not required for business purposes." Information beyond name, address, and credit card details included driver's license numbers for customers who returned merchandise without a receipt. TJX failed to conform to Canadian privacy laws, the commissioner states. TJX operates a few hundred stores in Canada, and Canadian citizens were affected.
Perhaps most damning, it took two years to convert from "a weak encryption standard to a strong standard," which is a huge ongoing problem for retailers which use point-of-sale systems with only WEP support. Many of these systems are ancient in computer industry terms (predating 2000), and retailers are, frankly, cheap when it comes to front-of-store IT spending. They only upgrade computers when compelled or when a new IT director comes on board and has a bee in his or her bonnet. Or, less often, when efficiency could be provably improved, and the cost is worthwhile.
The report notes, "We are of the view that WEP does not provide adequate protection as it can be defeated relatively easily." Other retailers were still using WEP in 2005, the report explains, but "whether or not other retailers made the move to enhance their data by using better encryption methods, the fact of the matter is that TJX was the organization subject to the breach." That conclusion is partly based on the fact that TJX retained so much "sensitive personal information."
TJX was aware of WEP's weaknesses, they began a conversion process in Oct. 2005, the report says, and only completed their conversion to WPA in Jan. 2007, which was months beyond the change in a set of credit-card processing rules set by industry, too. They're moving beyond that, possibly to 802.1X: "The final conversion to a higher level of encryption will be completed soon." During that period of improving encryption "there is no indication that it segregated its data so that cardholder data could be held on a secure server while it undertook its conversion to WPA."
I'm not sure how this affects any civil cases in process or yet to be filed, but it's fairly critical about TJX's overall approach to security and identity protection. It may be fodder for settlements with governments and individuals.
The city's slowly built fiber network has a 30-percent uptake rate for those it passes: The triple-play network (voice, data, and TV) will provide large profits to the city when it's debt is paid down in 15 years, InformationWeek reports. The network was built along the "built the barn you can afford" model, which avoided massive expenses in an all-at-once network deployment, and had an outside investor which provided low-cost financing due to what was seen as a sound business model. Revenue flow goes positive in 2009.
Two thousand of Burlington's 39,000 citizens are signed up at rates that start at $45 per month with a triple play. Now given that the uptake rate is reported at 30 percent, and households are typically comprise three to four people, perhaps 7,000 people of 25,000 are connected; those numbers were omitted from the story.
Their wireless plan is underway, but they're considering all the technologies that are available to them. Licenses are often more obtainable in smaller towns for wireless spectrum that the big boys own in big markets. Either a provider can be encouraged to build a network, or a license owner will sublet their option.
Not to sound too suspicious, but we'll see if L.A. can break the big-city mold: Like most other cities, Los Angeles hired Civitium to do its leg work for them. But the charge to the consultants now isn't, "Get us a free network, stat!" Rather, it's "find us a way the network can pay for itself by shifting and conserving dollars, meanwhile improving city efficiency." Ah, that sounds much more pleasant. The city has to decide how much it might spend, as well as how other city stakeholders--"schools, hospitals, businesses" according to the article--express their interest.
The most sensible statement? From the city's technology overseer Dean Hansell: "Our goal is not to be first." You can't be buried for making that statement; more likely, ultimately rewarded.
Utility poles and Wi-Fi: As part of a new series of frequently asked question (FAQ) responses, I respond to a question from a colleague who asked:
"Why are utility poles the key to WiFi network deployment? Because they're tall and everywhere?" (Send your questions that you want the inside FAQ on to email@example.com.)
Answer: Sort of. It's the odd convergence of three separate problems with deploying Wi-Fi across a city that make utility poles have so much importance: real estate, electricity, and height.
Wireless technology is all about location, location, location, just like the old joke. I have been told that at companies like Starbucks and Barnes and Noble, the people who sort out where to next locate a store are among the most important in the firm. Likewise, knowing the placement assets in a city or county, which often largely involve utility poles, becomes one of the most important factors in rolling out a Wi-Fi network.
Who owns the pole is also important. In most cases, a utility owns most or all poles in a city; there are exceptions. But it's not always the case that a municipality controls the utility. Even when a utility is public, not private, it may have its own agenda and be a separate political entity that a government that wants to faciliate the deployment of Wi-Fi can't control.
Electricity is a related issue. With the exception of a handful of networks, such as the one in St. Louis Park, Minn., Wi-Fi nodes and backhaul radios need juice. St. Louis Park went with installing new, tall poles that use solar power and batteries. Even they had problems--residents complained about aesthetics, which led to a delay, a redesign, and additional cost.
In many cases, utility poles lack enough power to add additional devices, or, if they're used for street lights, may have power supplied only part of the day. This burned Toronto's nascent network initially, and has led to a delay and possibly the end of an attempt for service in St. Louis, Mo. In St. Louis, power is "bank switched" for lights, making it a large issue to figure out how to provide power to Wi-Fi without turning on the lamps.
Utility poles may also be in too poor a condition or overloaded (either with equipment, weight, or electrical requirements), with extensions already added, to allow another device to be placed on it. However, the Telecom Act of 1996 requires that utilities make nondiscriminatorily priced access available to poles for certain kinds of services. I haven't seen a Wi-Fi provider yet challenge a utility on the basis of failure to provide pole access. It's unclear whether Wi-Fi, as an information service, qualifies. Wi-Fi that carries VoIP or other telephony signals as a fundamental purpose of the network might.
Poles aren't all the same: each is an individual, and some cities are finding that hundreds of thousands to many millions of dollars might be required to upgrade the pole infrastructure to support modern devices being placed on them. Tacoma Power, for instance, did a massive overhaul a decade ago before installing a new fiber-optic network for electrical system monitoring, cable television, and broadband.
Of all the utilities in the U.S., Southern California Edison Company has had the worst public face on this issue, delaying networks all across its territory by initially refusing to allow any Wi-Fi nodes without tons of study, and fees the same as cell carriers--$2,000 a month per pole. (Cell equipment is generally larger and more power hungry.) They relented since this article in the L.A. Times was published in July 2006, but not to wholesale availability. Its neighbor to the north, PG&E, has apparently no problem in providing pole access on similarly aged infrastructure.
Now for height, you have a mix of opinions based on which kind of equipment is deployed on a network. The split is typically between the mesh-cluster approach and the router-backhaul approach. The former, represented mostly and predominantly by Tropos Networks, involves building city-wide networks as clusters of Wi-Fi mesh access points, typically 4 to 6 in a pod. Each cluster has a separate backhaul radio that aggregates the traffic from the cluster to a remote point, which is turn is hooked via fiber optic or licensed wireless to central points of presence.
In this model, you want nodes to be lower, because your goal is to push access to the street and ground floors, and to allow the nodes to have as much line of site to each other as possible. Tropos and most other metro-scale vendors use omnidirectional antennas on their public Wi-Fi nodes, and that means that signals drop in strength rapidly. A node mounted 20 feet off the ground has enormously less energy when hitting a ground-floor apartment or iPhone user walking by then if it's 10 feet off the ground. The backhaul radio needs to be placed higher for line of site on its point-to-point connection.
In the other model, pursued by most other vendors (Strix Systems, SkyPilot Networks, BelAir Networks, and equipment from Motorola and Cisco), there's little or no mesh. Each Wi-Fi node has at least one 5 GHz or other backhaul radio. This means the Wi-Fi node has to be located where it can most effectively reach the most users, but high enough to get a good line of site to an aggregation point. With multiple backhaul radios, switching can be used, too, so that the optimal path is used to ensure the greatest amount of data is sent as efficiently as possible.
Praise the humble utility pole: It's the linchpin and the albatross in so many metro-scale wireless plans.
Update: A spokesperson from Solis Energy wrote in to note that I didn't mention solar-powered solutions in context of utility poles, and she's write. Solis Energy is one of several firms now offering a variety of self-containing solar/battery systems designed to unhook devices like Wi-Fi nodes from the needs of the grid, and, by extension, from the limitations and restrictions of using utility poles. Solar-plus-batteries are also solutions for places that are completely off the grid, such as rural areas and developing nations, or where the cost of accessing the grid is far higher than a self-contained system.
The mesh-networking firm Meraki Networks announced a solar-powered kit for their outdoor nodes that should run a few hundred dollars when it ships in December, the new availability date. They built the unit in house to work closely with their mesh router to keep power requirements very low, as well as provide direct reporting of energy use and other conditions. Read my interview with the firm's head on the solar and outdoor routers.
Despite the apparent effort by those involved, it seems very clear from this Wall Street Journal article that there's really no hope for Wireless Silicon Valley: The head of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley is on a roadshow to sell the cities and counties who signed on to consider being part of a large network that they might enjoy ponying up some cash for the privilege. But Russ Hancock says that IBM and Cisco, the two big partners, want the new pay-for-play model to be in place instead of funding it.
That changes the basis on which the bid was awarded, I would think. The cities and counties that are participating didn't expect this, and while it is clearly unreasonable for these municipalities to believe that a network could be built without any money coming from them, it's a different enough model that it would make more sense to rewrite the RFP and rebid it. Changing the model at this point is destined for failure.
Hancock is still trying to press forward, but it seems an exercise in futility at this point. Time to step back, get commitments first, and then re-bid starting with the idea of what the network will be used for first, not the idea of a network that, when built, will be used.
The reporter here, Ben Charny, knows this subject area well, but I have to disagree with him vehemently when he writes, "It was once thought that municipal wireless networks of all sizes could be supported through the sale of advertisements that appear during the free Internet sessions and the small fee paid by those who want a faster, ad-free Internet service."
The dominant companies in this space never thought that. MetroFi doesn't even think that any more, and they were the only company pursuing sizable networks that used advertising revenue as the main revenue source. MetroFi continues to fund the networks partially through that means, but they also require substantial service commitments to diversify revenue.
In other words, one company may have thought this; none do now.
And, I should remind everyone, even EarthLink declined to bid on Wireless Silicon Valley because they didn't think enough homes were passed relative to the density of the network.
Rio Rancho, N.M., widely cited for its early embrace of Wi-Fi, cuts off its provider: Azulstar, part of the two consortium that are unwiring Sacramento and Silicon Valley, has had its contract with the town canceled due to $33,000 that the city claims it is owed for electrical use. Azulstar and the city have been engaged in lively discussion over the network's quality and other issues, with Azulstar submitting a plan recently to swap essentially all their network gear out. The Wireless Silicon Valley project is also on the rocks, and may be abandoned, depending on which publicly quoted source close to the project you read--and in which publication. [link via MuniWireless]
Rio Rancho's county, Sandoval, has also had troubles with its much-discussed network, too, for which $1.2m was spent with few results, according to a July store in the Rio Rancho Observer. The county plans to sue its provider, the newspaper reported in July, but no further news on that front has appeared. Dewayne Hendricks, a long-time wireless advocate and consultant, was a consultant and then head of the provider for a time. When contacted, Hendricks had no comment on the advice of his lawyer. (Disclosure: Hendricks and I correspond regularly, and I'm an avid reader of his Dewayne-Net list.)
Former AOL exec John McKinley explains the five reasons that municipal Wi-Fi networks encountered problems and are faltering: Reader Steve Harvey forwarded me a link to this short essay which cogently sets forth the technical and pricing problems with the wave of metro-scale networks that are not being built. He calls muni-Fi a "dead-end approach," although McKinley seems to be referring more specifically to large-scale Wi-Fi as broadband, in-home replacement.
McKinley notes how the industry generalized the scattered success of moms-and-pops to build wireless point-to-multipoint networks over 2.4 GHz into a technically different approach: omnidirectional clouds of localized service. But McKinley writes, five pieces of reality intruded: Weather and trees; utility poles; CPE hassles; incumbent pushback; and "too little bandwidth, too late to matter. McKinley's familiar with the market from his time at AOL, which was considering building such networks (news to me).
I'll quibble with a few of his arguments and facts, including that mesh networking is at the heart of many of these city-wide networks. Ultimately, mesh is hardly used, except in Tropos configurations. Even then, the meshes aren't city-wide, but small clusters of nodes in which each cluster is separately backhauled via point-to-multipoint links. (Meraki is offering true mesh with low-powered radios, without promising robustness; we'll see how that plays out.) But most of what McKinley writes rings true.
Access to utility poles have dogged most large-scale Wi-Fi rollouts in the U.S., and I've written about it extensively here. The CPE hassles--the problems in getting a device in the home to receive outside signals--has turned into price instead of an installation problem. McKinley looks at the requirement for truckrolls, where installers come to a home to figure out the right placement of the receiver, but you don't need them; you just need to put a $150 to $300 high-gain Wi-Fi bridge in each home for about $40 to $50. That's a tricky problem.
Incumbent pushback is another well-covered situation on this blog. Incumbents, challenged by wireless, introduced new, cheaper service almost anywhere a wireless network was even begun, and rolled in the excavators to put more wire, fiber, and cable in where service was scarce. A lot of pricing is "limited," "trial," "for new customers," or "promotional," but much of it has lingered far longer than originally stated, too. With a duopoly, the threat of jumping from DSL to cable or vice-versa leads to carriers giving you deals, too.
Finally, the "too little bandwidth, too late to matter" item hits to the heart of where the market is. If you're focused on using Wi-Fi to replace dial-up, it's not too little bandwidth, especially if alternatives don't exist. But with the increasing creep of broadband, we're reaching a point where an ever-shrinking minority of Internet users--often, in fact, minority Internet users--have real interest in something faster than dial-up. I don't mean that people who don't have broadband don't all want it. But rather that studies by Pew and others show that there's a core of users who don't see broadband as needed or desirable; and some that live in circumstances where no wired connection will ever arrive due to cost.
That is, with more and more people having broadband access, there is a smaller pool of people who want to have it and can have it. The intersection of want and can is where Wi-Fi was supposed to fit in for residential users. That intersection shrinks every day.
So while Wi-Fi networks can't deliver broadband-competitive speeds, they are highly competitive with cellular 3G networks when outdoors. In the best-designed city-wide Wi-Fi networks, Novarum found that Wi-Fi service was faster than 3G. McKinley states that 3G is down to the $20 to $30 range, but I've never seen true 3G--faster than EDGE--at those rates. $40 per month with a smartphone bundle and $60 per month with a two-year commitment for a PC Card is more typical. And cell companies strictly limit how their networks are used due to scarce spectrum.
The one niche that Wi-Fi networks seem to have a real competitive edge is in mobile access at broadband speeds. The introduction of mobile WiMax in its real form next year, and 700 MHz networking in two or three years could change that market model. But as long as Wi-Fi is cheaper, less fettered, and truly mobile, it may still have an edge--it certainly has one right now, but almost no network was built with this particular model in mind.
Wire service seems to discover the shifting sands under muni-Fi a few weeks after its competitors: An AFP correspondent notes EarthLink's business model change a few weeks after that change is announced. Nonetheless, some good analysis, and a refreshing lack of the usual suspects quoted. (Even I'm not quoted; I'm tired of seeing myself quoted on this subject, because my views and conclusions are widely known.)
There is an interesting quote from an "independent" industry analyst--he's self-employed, but consults for telecoms according to his bio--about why this failures are occuring: "This is a technology that is changing so quickly that you have to allow the industry to handle it on a competitive basis to keep the prices low and innovation high...When government gets involved in these projects, no matter what government, it just trips over itself."
I'm not sure what to make of that. Kagan seems to be implying that cities are controlling these networks, where the high-profile cancellations involve cities settings terms. But those terms have turned out to be so sub-optimal, that perhaps cities were restricting competition even while not investing their own money in building the networks or having ownership. "When government gets involved" strikes me as knee-jerk conservatism, given that private industry funded the muni efforts that have stalled or never reached a signed contract. But, in fact, government did get involved.
There are just a handful of Wi-Fi networks across the U.S. in which a private company chose to build out without any bidding process--they just started obtaining pole and roof rights and put equipment up. MetroFi was an early company in that space in the Bay Area. That model withered when cities seemed to be offering franchises that would enable access to lots of city facilities, but also provide a de facto exclusivity by requiring 95 percent coverage and by ensuring subsequent providers would have only marginal markets and less real-estate access.
The public/private partnership was tipped in the public favor, but not for the public good. EarthLink accepted the most onerous terms in its contracts, leading the rest of the industry to do the same. Their change signals the end of that mode of business, and one in which cities and service providers have to find mutually beneficial models.
Williamsburg, Virg., appears to have coal-powered, steam-driven Wi-Fi: Residents aren't much happy with the free network's function. A power outage and a server crash disabled the network for a few days, and apparently no one in the city government noticed.
As part of EarthLink's effort to shed enormously costly projects with no near-term return, they aren't putting more money in Helio right now: The mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which buys minutes and data at wholesale from Sprint (and possibly Verizon), was founded to bring cool South Korean phones and interesting services to youth and young adults in the U.S. It's taken hundreds of millions of dollars to reach a point where it's future isn't well predicted. Few MVNOs make it.
SK Telecom has been EarthLink's 50-50 partner, and EarthLink and Boingo Wireless founder Sky Dayton has headed up the effort. The initial investment was $220m from each firm. SK Telecom just put $270m more into the venture, and IDG News Service reports that it may assume majority ownership, too. If I read the report correctly, EarthLink has put $250m in so far and SK Telecom has now put in $590m.
Helio has just 130,000 subscribers, a tiny drop in the buckets compared to over 100m cell subscribers in the US. They're aiming for 200,000 to 250,000 subscribers by the end of 2007 with revenue of $140m to $170m.
A couple of Central Florida Web designers have built Frooka, a free hotspot directory that's meant for their area: Hyper-localism takes body blows now and then when it's related to reporting; several attempts to get nationally launched sites that enable down-to-the-street reports from individuals with an interest haven't created real firestorms in the news world. But a hyper local Wi-Fi directory? Sounds good to me. The confluence of personal interest and generosity could make it highly accurate because it's so much about what's there, not what's everywhere.
NYC subways get cell, Wi-Fi: A consortium will put cell antennas and Wi-Fi service in six stations over two years, and if successful unwire 271 additional station over four years. Tunnels will remain without service, which isn't a surprise. The transit authority gets the system at no cost; it's estimated to cost $46m. The brief article doesn't describe where revenue comes from or which firms are in the consortium. However, cell carriers pay fees to firms that operate antennas in obscure areas because carriers see an increase in usage, service fees, and satisfaction. In airports, for instance, Concourse and individual carriers built out the service, and then are paid fees to cover operational costs.
USA Today on muni-Fi: "woes everywhere you turn": The USA Today weighs in on the fate and state of municipal Wi-Fi networks. No new ground broken, but it's a fascinating rundown for a mass consumer audience of exactly what's not happening. (Features inevitable quote by yours truly; big-city muni-Fi seems entirely out of reach right now is my take.)
TechNewsWorld offers a similar but more extensive look at the topic: David McClure of the Verizon-funded U.S. Internet Industry Association, which backed earlier anti-muni-Fi reports, is a bit strident, but not inaccurate when he states there are no "significant audience[s] of paying users" anywhere. Strident, but accurate. I used to disagree with much of what McClure said, except his advice on how cities should plan and evaluate network deployments. Now, well, he sounds reasonable. How did that happen? Back when he was labeled a sock puppet--primarily by me--I was referring to the vested and undisclosed interests he represented. His part of the report that launched a thousand diatribes contained good advice at the end. But he's still too broad when he says Wi-Fi can't work over square miles. It does and provably can. He's correct when he says it's a bad technology to penetrate walls for indoor coverage--it's not designed for it, and while you can build a network in which residential indoor coverage works, it's clearly far too expensive for the revenue because of the lack of users in these early networks.
Roanoke, Virg., says "reliability has been an issue": A downtown Wi-Fi network built by Cox Communications doesn't appear to be good enough for residents to use, but Cox says they're honoring a level of service agreed to last October. Cox says their network (meaning the backbone) is fine, despite parts of the Wi-Fi network being unable to access the Internet. Based on comments in this article, the network has essentially never worked well. (I see the same problems with Seattle's neighborhood networks found in just a couple of places around town, and sponsored by the city. The one in the University District just doesn't perform for me indoors or out in anything like a reliable fashion. Yet, it sees usage!)
Unlimited means unlimited, except in the cell world: Apple signed on to the embarrassing doublespeak of the cellular telephone industry yesterday in its launch with UK cell carrier O2 of the iPhone in Britain. O2 added Wi-Fi to the mix via The Cloud's 7,500 locations as part of the included price in any of three reported plans for service, which start at £35 for 200 minutes of calls and 200 SMS messages. The data plans for EDGE and Wi-Fi are "unlimited" not unlimited. The footnote on O2's information page says that unlimited "fair usage" is included. But that's just garbage.
Just like Verizon's definition of "unlimited BroadbandAccess" meaning "about 5 GB a month regardless of your use, and we'll pretend you're using it illegitimately if you exceed that amount even if you're using it for purposes we define," O2 is playing games. It's not unlimited. It's a limited, unmetered service. You are not paying per byte, but they have a number in their systems, which the company head defined at a press event yesterday as "no more than 1,400 Web page downloads" per day.
Examining O2's site, I can find no specific mention as to what fair usage constitutes for an iPhone. The BlackBerry plan includes just 75 MB per month as part of unlimited fair usage. A special "1024" plan includes 1 GB per month in that definition
The lack of a definition, and the weasel-like nature of redefining a perfectly straightforward word to create market confusion and deception, in which customers are incapable of knowing what's meant even after they sign up for service, is despicable.
Apple should know better.
I would like to call for a set of consumer complaints against the misuse of this term. Any time you see the word "unlimited" used with a proviso or asterisk, write your national regulator or advertising standards board and complain. There's misuse of unlimited privileges, which I can understand: someone using a service in contravention of reasonable terms. But that's not what cell companies mean. They mean, whatever you're doing, however reasonable, we set the limit in unlimited.
AT&T is getting a clue on its understanding of Wi-Fi. Okay, that's an overstatement: In the press release for the Blackberry 8820, the first cell plus Wi-Fi model of the handheld communicator, AT&T mentions the existence of hotspot networks. "Individual customers can use it in their homes and, for an additional charge, at thousands of Wi-Fi locations* throughout the U.S., including any of the 10,000 AT&T-owned or branded hot spot locations in the U.S. Users can also take advantage of tens of thousands of hot spots around the globe through such services as AT&T Wi-Fi roaming."
So far so good, right? Well that asterisk refers to this statement: "*Access charges from individual Wi-Fi hot spot operators may apply." And if you read through the pricing listed in the release, there's no mention of anything to do with AT&T and Wi-Fi.
Also, the link in the release to what supposedly is AT&T's own page with more information about the 8820 model--is dead. No such page. Great launch, guys.
AT&T's 10,000 hotspots are 8,000-plus McDonald's and a handful of other locations, including Barnes and Noble, a few hotels, a few airports, and a small coffeeshop chain.
Tropos deployed over 230 sq mi in Tucson? First I've heard of this network, designed for public safety. The ER-Link system offer telemetry and telemedicine for patients being transported by all 17 equipped ambulances run by the fire department. The medics can provide close-up views of injuries, and give vital statistic feeds to doctors at Tucson's University Medical Center. The system is offering a more pedestrian service, too, coordinating traffic signal data and remote images while conserving $200,000 per year in outsourced cost. The city is looking into additional applications. Building an outdoor public-safety oriented network is a great way to begin a city-wide Wi-Fi network, because the ability to move dollars from one budget to another and trim costs in the process make the networks affordable. This network relied on a $1.9m public-safety grant to get up and running. SmartWave Technology built the network; General Devices provided the telemedicine pieces.
Cable, Wi-Fi mix from BelAir in Billings: Billings, Montana, will mark the first cable/Wi-Fi hybrid network public test that I'm aware of. BelAir developed a cable-plant compatible access point many moons ago, and this deployment in a 1 sq mi test zone downtown uses the BelAir 100S, which connects directly to a cable line for data (via the cable DOCSIS 2.0 standard) and power.
Goodbye, Pasadena: Once EarthLink's headquarters, Pasadena got two blows in one week: 226 EarthLink employees in the city were laid off as part of the larger staff-cutting measures, and the network that EarthLink agreed to build there won't be under the current terms.
iPass has updated its hotspot index with new numbers on worldwide usage: The access aggregator and end-point security firm iPass, which enables corporate and individual subscribers to roam worldwide with dial-up and Wi-Fi hotspots, has taken to releasing usage statistics on a regular basis. The latest numbers cover the first half of 2007, where they saw nearly 2m sessions around the globe. iPass probably represents a double-digit fraction of all for-fee hotspot usage that doesn't involve a subscription to a particular provider or other aggregator. Airports dominate usage with 46 percent of worldwide sessions taking place there. And London, with super-expensive Wi-Fi service on a pay-as-you-go basis does not surprisingly land first on their session list with 1.3 percent of all usage and 25,049 individual sessions.
Boat-Fi: Honolulu will add free W-Fi on TheBoat, a ferry that runs among stops on the island. The service started yesterday morning; Wi-Fi will commence in a few weeks.
It's the news we've all been waiting for! Well, not actually: David Maynor has released an extensive report on how he discovered, tracked down, and exploited a weakness in Mac OS X 10.4.6 Wi-Fi drivers (checked against the MacBook and Intel Mac mini, Maynor notes) that allowed kernel-level code execution. The report is extremely technically detailed and beyond my ability to confirm. Perhaps someone can load up an appropriate computer with 10.4.6 and follow his instructions to duplicate what he achieved? (Update: A couple of colleagues plan to try this.)
The definition of proof is not assertion backed by additional asserted statements. It's a set of information that, when examined, a person with the right set of knowledge can reproduce or at least confirm. Maynor didn't provide details that would amount to proof, if confirmed, outside of private demonstrations and limited bits and pieces until today.
Maynor promised some of this back in February, and promised the release of more within a few days of a presentation he gave in which he offered some details on the Aug. 2006 exploit that he and then-colleague Jon "Johnny Cache" Ellch created (see the comments on the linked post): "I did release the code, it should be showing up on websites at any time" he wrote on March 2. I wasn't able to get an explanation as to the delay; Maynor has been constrained because he developed the exploit while employed by a company that clearly didn't want him to continue to talk about it. He's independent now, one of the principals of Errata Security, but his old correspondence and other work data is clearly still out of bounds.
The controversy that emerged last year had a few parts. First, what did Maynor and Ellch say and then not say? That is, did they claim a hack, then recant it, then de-recant it? What did they show Brian Krebs of the Washington Post? It's clear they jiggered their demonstration video, but did it affect its verity? Did they, in fact, truly find a exploit, report it to Apple, and get hung out to dry by Maynor's then-employer and "Apple PR," as Maynor described it?
Well, we can't answer most of those questions. I have no expectation that Maynor spent a year developing an exploit that works on a deprecated release of OS X. If this works, it surely worked a year ago. I have no doubt that Maynor is genuine and sincere, nor Ellch either (I liked Ellch's co-written book on hacking 802.11). But what I and other colleagues like Daring Fireball's John Gruber--none of us "zealots," "fanboys," or mouthpieces of Apple PR as have been variously alleged--have wanted is simple proof rather than assertion.
This first report, with more promised, isn't simple proof, But it should be verifiable by a party that has no vested interest. Via email last week with Maynor, which I won't disclose per my policy of keeping the contents of received email private, I suggested that if he had simply showed that he could "own" a Mac OS X 10.4.6 system provided by a third party in a controllable situation, this whole situation would have been much more in his favor last year. Or at any time. I won't provide his response. (Gruber offered first one and then two brand-new MacBooks for a successful in-person demonstration of the exploit.)
Back in March I published my "Last Post" on this matter, but said "probably, maybe, almost certainly the last post." Okay, so perhaps this is getting close to it. Maynor hints that he has undiscovered, unpatched exploits to come.
Alaska Airlines chooses Row 44 for in-flight broadband test, Wall Street Journal reports: Row 44 uses Ku-band satellite access, just like the defunct Connexion by Boeing, but told me in an interview several weeks ago that their antenna is much smaller and lighter, their on-board systems are more compact, and they've eked out every last bit of bandwidth possible with the band they're using. As I've written before, Connexion by Boeing was stalled by 9/11 and the air industry downturn, and thus deployed technology that was previous generation by the time it hit planes. Installation cost and time were large.
By contrast, Row 44 expects a relatively quick installation process within normal maintenance windows, much like AirCell, which is building a domestic air-to-ground broadband service. Row 44 can cover Alaska's large number of over-water flights to Alaska, Hawaii, and Mexico, where AirCell won't be able to even when they receive expected approval from Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean nations for their system. Row 44 planes extensive entertainment offerings down the road, too.
Alaska's test will come in the spring, and if successful, they'll roll service out to 114 aircraft by the end of 2009. No pricing has been set. AirCell believes its airlines will charge about $10 for a session. Row 44's head said that the firm might set up a fleetwide single price model--pay a few dollars for access on all Alaska flights for a day--or even a monthly subscription model.
If there's any sign that this generation of in-flight broadband is practical, it's the sheer number of companies in the space: OnAir, Aeromobile, AirCell, Row 44, Panasonic, and potentially one or two others in Europe. None of these firms is promising the moon. All are looking for long-term gains, not short-term wins at great expense.
And budget airlines are being quite aggressive about the service, too. RyanAir made the first big fleet-wide commitment, with the first planes coming online soon. Southwest is apparently ready to make a commitment, too, pending further testing.
Yes, WEP is dead, but it's still in wide use in the retail world and in devices that can't be upgraded: What to do? The best offense is a good defense. Plus some more offense. While AirDefense announced its WEP Cloaking tool to bolster its wireless monitoring and intrusion detection system back in April, which flooded Wi-Fi networks with WEP packets designed to mislead cracking tools by providing information that would drastically increase computation time or ruin calculations.
AirTight, a competitor, now enters the market with WEP Guard (no relation). The company says "WEP chaffing," or the insertion of many illegitimate packets as in AirDefense's method isn't a real approach. Instead, their system monitors for weak initialization vectors (a way to crack WEP very rapidly) from existing devices, and detects active WEP cracking tools. They also claim they can stop an intrusion when a WEP key is compromised.
Devicescape's Connect software for iPhone allows frictionless hotspot hookups: The single most annoying thing about an iPhone--after the lack of a To Do application--is how much effort it takes to connect to a hotspot that requires an account or payment. Devicescape's already solved that program for laptops, in an approach similar to Boingo's, but their real thrust is handheld devices and gadgets. Follow the link for my full write-up at TidBITS, a Macintosh site for which I am a contributing editor.
Distributed via a soft release today with Nullriver, makers of the iPhone installation hack called AppTapp, Devicescape's Connect makes it simple to connect to any network for which you've entered the credentials at their account management site. I've been testing the software for over a week. It's slick. It has two buttons: Login; Logout. Couldn't be more straightforward.
Devicescape attempts to remove the friction from using public and personal Wi-Fi networks, whether free or for-fee or under your own control, by externalizing authentication: you punch all the relevant details into their site, freeing you from having to perform device-by-device, network-by-network authentication, and relieving you of updating one or more devices when you change your own network passwords.
For an iPhone, it's rather ideal to gain access to networks that you have permission to use without any additional effort. Apple should have provided something like this; Devicescape beat them to the punch.
The software and service are free. Devicescape is considering value-added services to produce revenue, including simple options to buy access on networks they partner with using credit card details you store in your Devicescape account.
Headline on UK Independent article: "EU calls for urgent action on wi-fi radiation": No, it hasn't. Later in the article, the head of the European Environmental Agency is quoted about "mobile telecommunications," which has never been understood to mean Wi-F. (The link for the article is to New Zealand; the Independent's Web site is throwing Java pointer errors right now.)
Also from the same article: "The warning, from the EU's European Environment Agency (EEA) follows an international scientific review which concluded that safety limits set for the radiation are "thousands of times too lenient." No, they aren't. A self-identified group of experts released a report that hasn't been peer reviewed; the participants include the usual suspects.
(The EEA hasn't released whatever report the Independent refers to the public via its Web site yet, by the way, assuming it exists, which is a big assumption when dealing with the Independent's reporting on this subject.)
Sentence from same article: "The German government is already advising its citizens to use wired internet connections instead of Wi-Fi and landlines instead of mobile phones." No, it isn't.
From a profile on Larry Page in Portfolio magazine: "[Google has] plans to bring free wi-fi access to areas across the U.S.": No, it doesn't.
No, no, no.
On my bike ride home from the office Friday, I spotted a COLT: That's a cell-tower on light truck. I stopped to ask one of the technicians why they were deploying a COLT--a category of COW, cell on wheels--in the parking lot of the market that sits at a major highway junction. He said that the big game--Huskies v Buckeyes--required more cell access, in this case from Verizon. The market has a bully pulpit for a cell tower, which was expanded a few years ago. They run cabling from the cell tower to the COLT, which provides more available frequencies and signal strength, I'd wager.
Moovera releases a Wi-Fi metro-scale node with 3g, WiMax backhaul: While this might seem like a specialized item, the folks a Moovera assure me that there are many markets in which conventional mesh (sharing frequencies to move packets around a set of nodes) and point-to-multipoint backhaul just won't work. 3G and WiMax are increasingly available, and thus reasonable options for a freestanding node or set of nodes. The Moovbox F100 has dual-band Wi-Fi, and can support all major flavors of 3G as well as mobile WiMax. The node pricing starts $1,200.
Verizon plays spoilsport: The FCC staff extensively refuted Verizon's various contentions regarding its intention to set any device/any service rules for a swath of national 700 MHz spectrum. Many of Verizon's arguments appeared prima facie specious to me, not a regulatory or constitutional expert; Verizon didn't like it, and sued today. The company argues that requiring a firm to allow any device and access any service oversteps the FCC's authority. It seems unlikely to be upheld, given the tendency for courts to allow the FCC to act fairly broadly within their statutory powers, even when that includes limiting competition by allowing massive consolidation of media ownership.
The national 700 MHz licenses in the so-called C Block are the last great hope for anything marginally like real, unfettered broadband wireless access that's not already tied up by large telecoms, as with 2.3 GHz and 2.5 GHz licenses, among other bands. I wrote extensively about the FCC Second Order and Report that set the terms for the upcoming auctions back on Aug. 16.
Nikon puts new Coolpix S51c on T-Mobile HotSpot network: The $330 Wi-Fi-enabled camera, shipping later this month, comes with six months of free use on T-Mobile HotSpot's U.S. network. The camera has an 8.1-megapixel sensor and 3x optical zoom. The six months begin from the first connect, which has to start before Aug. 31, 2008. These deals simply further emphasize how difficult it is to connect cameras to hotspots, as the cameras lack browsers.
None of Nikon's information explains the down-sampling that will be involved with emailing photos from the camera; it's unlikely that full-resolution images would be transmitted. Further, Nikon's previous software releases required software to be installed to transfer images at full resolution over a local network. The S51c comes with Mac and Windows software, so that's likely still the case.
No Wi-Fi camera has yet been released for the consumer market that simply allows file transfers at full resolution over any network reachable when connected via Wi-Fi, nor full-resolution image transmission. None that I'm aware of include secure file transfer, either, although Nikon says its associated picture service for this and other cameras uses some secure method, not defined.
Even the iPhone, with access to Wi-Fi, and with low-resolution photos, only emails or posts to Web galleries downsampled versions. You have to sync over USB to transfer the full resolution.
Virgin America announces AirCell deal (BoingBoing coverage, press release): As previously leaked to BoingBoing writer and NPR correspondent Xeni Jardin, AirCell will equip Virgin America's fleet in 2008 with in-flight broadband. The airline will offer Internet access, but also their Red service, which will allow seatback access to email, Virgin's own chat network, and popular instant-messaging clients.
Jardin notes that the Red chat network will connect all aircraft, creating "what amounts to a fleet-wide, airborne social network." They'll be adding in-flight "interactivity," which I assume could mean multi-player games among other entertainment.
Virgin America is billing this as the first fleet-wide commitment to in-flight broadband, which is true given their limited number of initial aircraft. Still, it's a good commitment, and one that they can make part of their service offerings when they advertise the airline. In-flight broadband should make flights pass faster by offering more distraction--and hopefully distraction that doesn't annoy other passengers.
Phila. council member writes uninformed op-ed against Phila. Wi-Fi: Frank Rizzo notes, "You may remember that at the time that WiFi Philadelphia was proposed, I was its most outspoken critic. My concern was that this was an effort best left to the private sector, which would be more efficient, effective and economical with the discipline of the marketplace, than government would be." Strangely, the effort in Philadelphia involved a private firm using its own capital to construct a network at its own expense, and which turned out to be unsustainable as a broader model.
He writes, "I pointed out that Earthlink's "free" provision of a wireless network (no financial responsibility for the city) was not really free since it required that the city be the anchor tenant to make the network viable." There is no such requirement for the city to purchase services. "But the city already has extensive connection to the Internet through alternative services (like the Free Library of Philadelphia)," he writes in a sentence that makes no sense whatsoever.
Rizzo has previously written several similarly uninformed notes. He voted along with the rest of the council to approve the EarthLink contract in 2006.
Christian Science Monitor takes a step back to survey muni scene: As I suspected, the reporter found that cities below the metropolis level with clearly defined goals that included multiple uses of the network have fared better in roll-outs.
Cincinnati puts Wi-Fi on hold: The city spent $18,000 to determine the feasibility of building a city-wide network, and they think the timing is wrong. It's certainly a good time to put plans to make a plan on hold while the industry shakes out, and next-generation MIMO and 802.11n metro-scale gear starts to hit the market, probably by early 2008.
San Francisco formally pulls plug: The supervisors committee refused to vote on a contract with EarthLink that's now moot, officially putting that deal to rest.
Pepwave Mobility can keep an active Wi-Fi connection at up to 75 mph, the company says: The device is the first mobile router I'm aware of that's designed as a separate product, rather than as part of an integrated package that includes propriety elements and often installation and maintenance. They have no per se competitor that I'm aware of for this segment. The company plans to sell the unit to service providers and others starting at $495 for a 100 mW radio (European market), with higher prices for 200 mW and 400 mW radios (U.S.).
Enabling mobile communications in commuter vehicles was supposed to be one of the ancillary benefits of city-wide wireless networks, but it's been mostly ignored. Most commuter-based Internet access over Wi-Fi uses satellite or cellular backhaul.
And so we bid a fond farewell to Wireless Silicon Valley (I'm not dead yet, it cries): The San Jose Mercury News's Vindu Goel reports that it's not so much that the 1,500-sq-mi project is on the ropes, as if it's on the mat seeing double with the count at 8 or 9. Goel quotes the head of the proposal Joint Venture Silicon Valley that "We're prepared to scrap the whole project." Goel also notes that there's no managing director or other head for the Metro Connect consortium of Cisco, IBM, Azulstar, and SeaKay, rather led by a team and the Joint Venture group.
Goel also highlights the difficulties Azulstar has had in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, supposedly its flagship location. An article in the local paper from Aug. 20 documents Azulstar's eleventh hour response to the city about the company's plans to improve the network. The summary is: we plan to replace every bit of equipment used on the network. Rio Rancho has been widely cited since 2005 as a model network, but apparently no one visited. The newspaper has been reporting during most of that time about the network and company's performance.
What's interesting is that the Joint Venture head says that the Metro Connect group came to him and said that "we don't have a business model here" only after EarthLink said that their model wasn't workable; the Metro Connect group apparently woke up one day and realized ad-supported service wouldn't work across this area. One might note that EarthLink declined to bid on Wireless Silicon Valley in writing because they believed the deal didn't pass enough homes or have enough of the right kind of market conditions. [link via Craig Settles, who accurately called this one long ago]
Update: Joint Venture claims (to IDG News Service) their head was misquoted. No correction has been published in the Mercury News, however.
The BBC reports that a study based on six years of research finds small chance of higher risk in long-term cell phone use: As I wrote Monday, when credible connections between health and wireless are made, I'll link to them. This appears to be one such case. The researchers found no short-term link between use of mobile phones and one's health using several different measures and no link emerged. The study did find a slightly aberration in the numbers for certain forms of brain and ear cancers, but it's only technically in the realm of statistical significance. (Other, similar studies focused on ear cancer found no link.) They plan more research, especially into longer-term use. Update: Ars Technica analyzes the report and comes out quite strongly in stating that the report shows that cell phones are "safe": "the only clear health risk posed by a mobile phone involves using it while driving...they urge continued vigilance, but they also emphasize that there is no clear reason for concern at this point." [Ars Technica link via Dr. Bill Koslosky]
Broadcom shrinks Wi-Fi, modules: With all the wireless options scheduled to be crammed into laptops, Broadcom's trying to reduce the area required for that old standby, Wi-Fi. Future laptops may contain ultrawideband, Bluetooth, a cell data modem, and Wi-Fi. Broadcom says its new laptop module for Wi-Fi (a/b/g) takes up 40 percent less space and uses half the battery power, and will work in tiny devices as well as being embeddable in Secure Digital I/O (SDIO) cards. They also released a combined Bluetooth/Wi-Fi module for laptops for the PCIe mini-card.
A number of articles today indicate that the last few weeks' haze may be starting to lift slightly: More reasonable, targeted, smaller (at least initially) Wi-Fi networks will be built in cities, and we're starting to see some of that news percolate out.
If you haven't seen it already, read my interview from last week with EarthLink's CEO, Rolla Huff: Huff said that EarthLink is by no means out of the Wi-Fi business, but they're working to meet with potential partners and stakeholders to sort out whether a viable model is possible to build such networks. I suspect one reason Huff was willing to talk with me, as he's giving very few interviews on the muni topic right now, is that you readers may have ideas.
MetroFi launches two public access/public safety networks: Naperville, Ill., and Concord, Calif., see their MetroFi free-with-ads networks light up. Both networks combine public access and public safety, the potentially winning formula for city-scale operations. We'll see. Naperville's first phase goes live as early as this week; Concord is two-thirds done. The HeraldNews, Naperville's local paper, reports that MetroFi has seen usage triple in a matter of weeks in Aurora, which neighbors the town: from 500 unique registered users in May to 1,500 in July. The Aurora rollout has been dogged by utility pole issues, like many other networks.
Sacramento Wi-Fi nearing rollout: Sacramento was the scene of one of the first contract blowouts where the entity now known as Kite Networks walked away from the bargaining table when asked to provide free service as rates higher than 56 Kbps. The Sacramento Metro Connect consortium (Cisco, Intel, Seakay, and Azulstar) will launch free-with-ads Wi-Fi downtown in December. The project will commence this month after a contract being awarded in June. The entire city will ultimately have the service. Higher rates of speed than a level not defined in this article--probably 300 to 500 Kbps, based on earlier reports--will cost $15 per month.
Portsmouth, N.H., expands coverage across city's major corridors: This is a Chamber of Commerce project which will provide free Wi-Fi using a grant and donated gear. Cisco will provide gear, while the University of New Hampshire Interoperability Lab--a Wi-Fi Alliance testing facility--will provide technical expertise. The city will be partly a lab, allowing companies to test gear, apparently, too.
Two ridiculous articles today on Wi-Fi and health: Look, if there are nonridiculous articles, I'll write about them, too, but puh-leeze. Todays' crop is too much. If you write an article today and just wave your hands about government statements without including any of several recent studies and comprehensive reviews of studies that show no connection between ill health and wireless (typically cell at higher power levels than Wi-Fi), then you're just plain making stuff up. A reporter or expert can disagree with the array of studies out there, but ignoring them doesn't equate to refuting them.
First, the UK Independent weighs in on its never-ending campaign to overcome the preponderance of scientific information by distorting freely available details that anyone can check on. They say that the German government "ruled" that citizens should avoid electrosmog, and switch to landlines (which, by the way, produce electromagnetic radiation, thank you very much). The Register links to the actual information released, which was an agency response to questions from members of the Bundestag, the German parliament. My German is rusty, but the July 23 document is really a set of questions about the state of the government's knowledge of the deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots and the risks. The Bavarian government apparently suggested Wi-Fi networks be used as a last resort in schools, but the document doesn't describe any form of ban or advice that I can make out. (Per the headline, drahtlos is the German work for wireless.)
Next, in Canada, our friend Dr. Magda Havas, last seen as an advisor to the Lakehead University head's decision to suspend Wi-Fi use by the school, surfaces again here with specious statements that lack any research support. The article has weak citations on the matter--no formal studies, slight government response--while failing to mention any of the readily available research, which includes dozens of studies that demonstrate no EMF/health link. The most recent of which received a fairly positive response, as it showed that people could exhibit an electrosensitive response even when no fields were present under carefully monitored circumstances.
EarthLink CEO Rolla Huff said in an interview earlier this week that EarthLink is still open to building Wi-Fi networks across cities: What he wants, he told me Wednesday, is to get the right stakeholders in city-wide Wi-Fi to sit down and talk strategy. EarthLink's two-year-old Wi-Fi strategy, now effectively repudiated, was to go it alone. No longer. "The conversation can't begin with, 'You put up all the money.'" he said.
I hadn't spoken to Huff before, and he was very on message about this topic; it's tricky for the heads of publicly held firms these days to be frank, because anything new they disclose can be seen as material and affect filings, stock price, and so forth. Still, I was impressed by the intensity of his interest in charting a plan to make the municipal networking idea work, and his honesty in stating that EarthLink doesn't know if there's a way to make it work.
Huff stated in no uncertain terms that EarthLink hasn't closed the door on future networks. But he wants buy-in. "I think there are a lot of constituencies out there that have a reason to see Wi-Fi networks exist. And I'm one of those constituents. I'm absolutely a proponent of doing them," Huff said. Huff wouldn't comment on the remaining staff size in their municipal division following layoff announcments, which included the termination of Don Berryman, that division's head.
While Huff wouldn't discuss specific firms or strategies--he noted that what has "really hurt Wi-fi is that so much of the debate has been in the media"--he did say generally that a number of parties could be involved. "I'm getting to the people I believe would like to see Wi-Fi networks exist, and having a rational thoughtful conversation with them how we, we as a group of people who would like to see this happen, and how to make it happen."
In an analyst call last week, Huff noted that could include hardware makers, WiMax providers, municipalities, and chip makers. The EarthLink chief said that the company needed to find out "How many are interested in it, and interested in it enough to make commitments around it." Likewise, EarthLink would bring customers to other Wi-Fi networks that were built.
On the WiMax front, Huff wouldn't confirm or deny speaking with Sprint Nextel or Clearwire, but he did make clear that WiMax providers have a lot to gain from Wi-Fi, which I'd have to agree with. "The WiMax providers will never say publicly that there's a place for Wi-Fi; it's almost a religious thing," Huff said.
But Huff started building a WiMax network in Las Vegas while at his previous company, Mpower, and he said that led him to understand how Wi-Fi could help balance network load with a WiMax system. "Wi-Fi can't do a lot of the things that WiMax does, but the flip side of the story is that Wi-Fi in very confined areas can put a lot of bandwidth in a very targeted area," he said. (I've long argued that the Wi-Fi edge, which can deliver 20 Mbps in G or 50 to 100 Mbps in N over the local network could have a real potential beyond the 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps speeds typically provided across a metro-scale network when dealing with caching and media delivery.)
One of the items on the table for discussions with municipalities is working to shape cities' expectations of what a network buildout would look like. I always thought it was rather restrictive to require service providers to offer 95 percent coverage, given that cities have areas in which coverage makes no sense, in which broadband penetration is complete--nearly everyone who wants access has broadband--or where there's no audience for service.
"Should we really be spending the money to have picocells covering municipal parks? Is that the right way to do it to begin with? Or should we be focusing our capital dollars where people are -- where there are going to be the densest number of users?" Huff asked.
"We were providing coverage to cattle. It didn't make good business sense," Huff said. Those expectations, of course, were encoded in requests for proposals (RFPs), and service providers like EarthLink accepted them. That in turn prevented organic growth and may have led to the current crisis in which cost structure overwhelmed the true potential of network revenue.
Huff didn't suggest redlining--the old practice in which minorities were steered to de facto ghettoes or districts when purchasing houses. Almost the reverse. "EarthLink's model is not to cherrypick the highest-income areas. We want to get this to people who aren't necessarily looking to spend $100 to $150 per month for a voice, video, data combination," he said. Huff said EarthLink has always seen the municipal Wi-Fi customer as a $20 per month customer, the rough price they set for Wi-Fi in their markets.
A fundamental problem for EarthLink now, one that Huff alluded to in last week's analyst call and spoke about in our interview, is the cost of acquiring new customers. EarthLink's long-term customers have a good staying power, but customers they spend a lot to acquire also tend to churn faster, making them highly unprofitable. Huff seemed to make the point that EarthLink needs a way to bring on board many customers cheaply, which implies partnerships with firms that have existing customer bases that those firms can inexpensively provide information to.
I had heard and see the statistics that the U.S. dial-up market, while declining is also maturing--that it's likely we'll hit a stable point at which the people who cannot obtain faster service or aren't interested in broadband will remain a relatively constant pool. Huff said there is an inflection point.
"We look at our customer base, we've got a lot of customers who have been with us multiple years. The churn that you see are really people who are just coming into the category, who quickly roll out of the category. Which drove a lot of our restructuring," he said. Most importantly, though, "It's not a growth business, and it shrinks a little bit every year, but it generates huge amounts of cash."
Huff said that the problems facing EarthLink in the municipal market aren't unique. "Anybody who things this is an EarthLink issue is missing the point completely...If it were an EarthLink issue, there would be people lined up to be doing this. There would already be models just rocking."
And he's right: None of Huff's competitors are out there knocking on the doors of networks that are in abeyance in San Francisco and elsewhere. Many of those firms are walking away from networks themselves. "There's plenty of liquidity to invest money on things that will provide a return," he said. "The old model of Wi-Fi was not one of those things that would provide a return. People can vilify the company, but to me that's just a simplistic notion."
Fundamentally, Huff sees the restructuring effort as a way to bring EarthLink back to its roots, which was "bringing the power of the Web to everyone, not just those that could afford it. That was the principle that EarthLink was founded on. The municipal initiative was very supporting of that idea. And it's still a relevant idea. But it can't be an idea that gets funded on the back of shareholders that don't get a return."
What Huff needs to do now is re-inspire a certainly demoralized, and depleted workforce at EarthLink; convince financial markets that the firm has a way to increase revenues across all lines of business; and find the right stakeholders to make existing commitments to muni-Fi work while sorting out a new model.
If EarthLink walks away from all new municipal Wi-Fi networks, they're also walking away from the only pipe they could own outright.
Long Island Business News asks if the scrappy Florida firm e-Path can build the largest municipal network in the U.S. now planned without any municipal revenue: Craig Plunkett of CEDX, a local firm, says no, and he's been building Wi-Fi networks around the area for years. Fundamentally, e-Path is trying to line up advance commitments from businesses and others before it raises capital. But they have a lot of convincing to do, I'm sure. "Hi, we're a new firm, not from the area, that's never completed a network before--we have a couple in progress--and we're pursuing a business plan repudiated by a multi-billion-dollar service provider that founded the notion of residential Internet access. How many millions of dollars can we sign you up for?"
Just two months ago, Toronto Hydro was explaining the network wouldn't expand until they topped 4,000 subscribers: Apparently, they have. On July 5, the utility's head made it sound like expansion wasn't near term. Now, he says they've blown past the 4,000 figure, have "postiive earnings" (undisclosed), and are submitting plans to expand coverage. Huh. Could just a few hundred subscribers have tipped the revenue the right way for them? It's a big change.
The idea of having Internet access on board California trains seems to have stalled: Three potential projects to bring Wi-Fi to Bay Area commuter trains have stalled.
Caltrain just announced that after spending $300,000 in trials of Wi-Fi access on board trains last year, the agency rejected both bids to build out the service. They budgeted $1m to move forward and $3-4m for the whole project. The bidders weren't noted, but one was certainly Nomad Digital, which was involved in the tests. Apparently, they weren't satisfied with one bidder's costs, which result in a necessary subsidy, and the other's complexity. Caltrain covers the southern Bay peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco.
Altamount Commuter Express (ACE) was a pioneer in train-Fi. They went offline last year and are yet to return, although they have a logo and a planned date for completion (summer 2007, a season we're still technically not finished with). ACE runs from San Jose north via Fremont, then east to Pleasanton, Livermore, and Vasco.
Over at the Capitol Corridor, the project to test Internet service on board for operational and passenger purposes has languished; the initial bidders either pulled out or offered impractical options. The train's authority is still considering its options. Capitol Corridor runs from San Jose via Fremont to Sacramento.
In Europe, however, usage and offerings seem to keep expanding. Thalys just announced a cross-border deal that will put broadband on trains using satellite and cellular (GPRS/UMTS) combined backhaul. Trains will start having pilot installations in September, with production rollout in the fourth quarter. Thalys travels on routes that serve Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne at up to 300 km/h. They'll serve out Internet access alongside streaming media and games from onboard gear, with video on demand a later offering.
Google ferries folks all over the Bay Area on swank, uncrowded buses that relay in cell data signals for Wi-Fi access; Microsoft joins in around Seattle: Microsoft, the laggard on search, Web 2.0 applications, and many other areas (but don't let that fool you--remember "The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken") now joins Google and other firms in providing shuttle buses for employees to reduce their commuting time in the greater Seattle area, and, more importantly, increase their viable working hours. Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports from a briefing this morning that Microsoft will start with as many as 1,000 employees later this month on buses that also include Internet access.
Microsoft has long been a leader in commuter programs, which has made it doubly strange during a period of slack stock growth and employee-filching by other firms that they didn't up the most useful of all things in their workers' lives: time. I live right near the western end of State Route 520, the floating bridge that goes straight to Microsoft's various Redmond offices, and I know plenty of 'Softies who live in my neighborhood and further west. Adding commuter-Fi--along with electrical outlets at each seat--ensures happier employees and more productive hours. There are no dedicated bus lanes on 520, but there are HOV lanes heading west for several miles east of the bridge. That means that afternoon return commuters to Seattle could see 20 to 40 minutes shaved off that trip in which they aren't behind a wheel. Seven of the 14 coaches will have bike storage, too, to encourage fully car-free multi-modal transit.
The company is also putting offices in Seattle, its first substantial footprint in my fair city, despite being called "Seattle-based Microsoft" for all these years. They'll have space in South Lake Union leased from Paul Allen, where a street car is going in (street-car-Fi?), some space near the Amtrak/Sounder station (train-Fi?), and in Pioneer Square, a few blocks from the ferry dock (there is, in fact, ferry-Fi).
What remains to be seen is if Microsoft will tap Seattle-based Junxion for their cell router on the buses. (Junxion really is in Seattle; I just biked by their office on the way to my office.) Update: Bishop confirmed Junxion was tapped. Junxion's gear was designed to be used in large-scale deployments, with back-end administrative tools (Field Commander) that allow a single IT person to control configuration and handle updates. Even better for buses: the latest release of their Junxion Box firmware supports the GPS features in the Novatel 720 card. That means that Microsoft could provide real-time tracking of buses via that feature to their employees wondering when the bus would arrive. Of course, the employee might need to use an...iPhone to access a Web page with that detail while waiting at the coffeeshop.
The new iPod with Wi-Fi--the iPhone without the phone--won't bring huge bucks into stores other than Starbucks: The reason is that Apple mysteriously has chosen to make no hotspot deals except with Starbucks, nor allow third-party applications (so far). Which means that getting onto any but a free network that doesn't require a login is a hassle. Without an application or a partnership deal in place, users who want to use the average for-fee hotspot, even one for which they have an account, will have to engage in the tedious task of entering their details each time they use the network.
The other part of this problem is that hotspot operators have told me that they've never been excited by the prospect of having mobile devices that can download huge files without additional compensation. I believe that's one reason that Apple restricted the iTunes purchases from iPods and iPhones to music. I can't see a simple way by which hotspot operators can recoup additional bandwidth costs; they may have to impose throttling if they don't already. (I suspect most well-run hotspots have variable throttling based on overall usage and a particular user's usage.)
Starbucks can see this as a minor win for them, because of the frictionless process of gaining access with an iPhone or iPod touch. There's no account entry to buy music; it seems like a small step from that into bundling T-Mobile HotSpot accounts with iPods and iPod touchs, but that might run afoul of the AT&T deal Apple has for the iPhone. (Where's AT&T WiFi, that company's Wi-Fi hotspot network? Apparently, part of a different division--the consumer part--and almost entirely McDonald's stores, as I've previously reported.)
Apple introduces the iPhone without the iPhone: The company announced the iPod Touch this morning, including the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. The new iPod includes Wi-Fi but not EDGE (it's not a cell phone, after all), and lists for $299 for an 8 GB model and $399 for a 16 GB model. There's a Safari browser and some widgets, but no email client. Apple rates the player at 22 hours of audio and 5 hours of video playback per charge. The device will be launched worldwide, shipping in September, CEO Steve Jobs said.
Apple also introduced the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, which will be rolled out later this month to iPhones and iPod touch models. The store will sell music only over Wi-Fi, as you might have guessed. This prevents iPhone users from overloading the EDGE network. The limit of music and not video likewise prevents iPhone users from drowning hotspots with multi-gigabyte TV and movie purchases. The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store allows music previews and purchase. Songs purchased on the iPod Touch are synchronized back to your computer the next time you dock the iPod touch or iPhone. (Apple dropped the iPhone price to $399 for an 8 GB model, a $200 reduction. They eliminated the 4 GB model.)
In a neat bit of co-marketing, if you carry an iPod Touch, iPhone, or a computer with iTunes installed into a Starbucks with T-Mobile HotSpot service, the music player will join a music-purchase-only network that allows you to buy the song you're listening to with a single click. The Starbucks option starts in Seattle and New York in 600 stores Oct. 2, and rolls out from November to March in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, before spreading to other metro areas and all 5,800 Wi-Fi-equipped Starbucks by 2009. The Starbucks button also lets you see the last 10 songs played, and purchase other music from the Wi-Fi store.
It's a good win for Starbucks, because people with iPods and iPhones don't take up as much real estate as a laptop toter. They also probably don't stay as long, and they're almost certainly more likely to have more hands free to buy drinks and food. I expect that Starbucks will see a real uptick in sales at their initial stores when this features launches. For Apple, the company gets to add out-of-the-home distribution points with no real cost entailed. They'll give a piece of the sale to Starbucks (who will ostensibly give some money to T-Mobile, too). iPod and iPhone owners without home broadband or with slow broadband now have a reason to go to Starbucks.
My prediction has long been that Starbucks and T-Mobile will put in media servers in the stores themselves. Starbucks has tried this before with on-demand disc cutting, and such, but I'm talking about an edge media server that lives in the store and has the few terabytes of most popular music and video. An iPhone or iPod user would make the purchase in the store and receive files at 802.11g speeds (roughly 20 to 25 Mbps), making a 1 GB movie transfer in less than 10 minutes or an album in less than 30 seconds.
Wisconsin city told economics don't work: RITE Brain (still wrapping my head around a firm that would choose that name) said that after six months of testing, they weren't able to deliver service that could provide a competitive offering with DSL or cable. I could have told you that with six minutes' testing. As written in this space many times, metro-scale Wi-Fi once could compete on cost (hard now that telcos dropped prices to fight back) and coverage area (ditto in some places). Now, the hook has to be ubiquitous mobility at a lower price than cell data.
Still waiting in Silicon Valley: The first two pilot stages for the Wireless Silicon Valley project remain free of wireless. The model contracts for the project aren't done, and the testbeds, originally scheduled for 120 days, would run 30 to 90 days after which the full buildout would happen. Does that sound...foolish to anyone else's ears? We're running behind, so let's decrease the window for a project that teaches us what works?
Lev Gonick of Case Western writes about how city-led large-scale Wi-Fi is the wrong approach: Gonick has been involved in expanding OneCommunity since its launch in 2002, and it now spans "thousands of route miles of community owned fiber" with a strategy based on connecting stakeholders who anchor the network. The assessment, availability, and use of fiber assets is one of the missing pieces, he argues, from the municipal plans that were developed and have failed. (Some muni-Fi includes fiber as one component, but rarely as the key starting point.) With OneCleveland, fiber anchors Wi-Fi which flows from appropriately connected institutions--"libraries, schools, universities, community centers, and health care facilities."
This is partly what happened in San Francisco: fiber appeared as an option (at great expense, mind you) after the parameters around a city-wide Wi-Fi network were fully understood. It's unclear whether there's the will in San Francisco to spend the money, but there's little reason to argue against fiber, as it's the current ultimate technology: You can't beat it, but can you afford it? Companies don't locate in cities where fiber is scarce. Cities can't efficiently run their often far-flung sets of offices today without a fiber infrastructure; they fritter a lot of money away on expensive wired hook-ups. I've heard a lot of talk from municipalities about how putting in fiber--or having a fiber provider move into the city--pays back rather quickly for that reason.
Microsoft slashes Zune price to $200: According to this post from someone on the Zune team, this is just part of the normal product cycle, dropping the price by 20 percent. Uh, yeah, just like Apple keeps dropping the price on the iPod--oh, wait, no, they keep increasing the features (and occasionally moderately dropping the price). You drop price when supply is high. The same blog entry says customer satisfaction is 94 percent--right, those 94 Microsoft employees who bought them are happy, while the six non-Softies are not. (Zune, you may recall, has Wi-Fi built in, but can't synchronize or purchase music over Wi-Fi; neither can the iPhone.)
Iogear is first out of the gate to ship Certified Wireless USB using ultrawideband: The new standard allows up 480 Mbps at short ranges using UWB. The certification means that Iogear's gear should work with other manufacturers' items. Practically speaking, however, this first device is a hub and dongle combo that doesn't need to work with anything else. You plug in a dongle into a PC and plug in USB peripherals into a four-port USB 2.0 hub up to 30 feet away, although at that distance speed drops to closer to 100 Mbps. It's priced as $200, which seems like a price in search of a buyer. It works only with Windows XP SP2.
Review of StarTech Wi-Fi Detector reminds me of one released two years ago: The very funny review by Bryan Eley over at Mobility Site of the $75 StarTech Wi-Fi Detector puts me in mind of the Zyxel AG-225H. I reviewed it two years ago for Mobile Pipeline. I'm rather confused as to whether this has any new features. I had deja vu. I'm rather off Wi-Fi detectors because they can't by their nature offer enough information to supplant opening a laptop or powering up an iPhone or handheld.
San Francisco Chronicle endorses city-wide Wi-Fi without any idea about how to get it: Funny editorial. It promotes the notion of "fast, reliable, and low-cost service" via Wi-Fi across the city, while noting that perhaps another model could be out there among hundreds of cities planning and building networks. But oddly for an editorial, they don't suggest any ideas. Let me suggest one: San Francisco needs to figure out first a set of objective goals which a Wi-Fi network would solve for the city, including shifting or reducing costs, improving education, and reducing crime. Come up with targets that could be achieved. Spend money on pilot projects. Do the resulting numbers match expectations? Tweak until they do, or give up as a bad job. If you figure out the right course, build larger. Too rational for a city government?
Portland, Ore., has "stubbornly resilient" network: The Oregonian reporter Mike Rogoway, who has been testing the Wi-Fi network for months, and following the finances behind MetroFi's rollout, has run the numbers and believes that the potential ad revenue is at least enough to produce a marginal return. He thinks 1b page views a year and $5m in advertising is a baseline. MetroFi says additional services they'll sell will turn that into a good profit. Chuck Haas is also quoted in this article stating that Portland probably has the most usage of any municipal network with 17,300 uniquely registered users in August; their service is ad-supported and free. The only possible exception is Taipei, Taiwan's larger network, but since that's a for-fee network, it's possibly still lower even with a larger built out area and a larger population. The city of Portland hasn't yet committed to purchasing specific services from MetroFi, but they negotiated a price schedule as part of the initial contract in case they choose to.
Long Island paper op-ed says private firm building Wi-Fi is extension of government: Raymond J. Keating suggests that despite the zero cost of the e-Path bid to install Wi-Fi in two counties in Long Island, that fact that there's practically no working model out there for this form of bid means that the counties will ultimately start pitching in dollars. He writes, "It turns out that free-ad and subscription-based municipal systems need the government to provide subsidies or to become major customers to be viable." The latter is simple enough: When municipalities spend millions or tens of millions a year to incumbent telecoms, that's somehow not seen as a subsidy, it's a business relationship.
Aurora, Ill., not happy with network build-out speed by MetroFi: The city has sounded patient in previous articles, where they've noted that in the first fully electrified town in the U.S. had issues with utility poles preventing a faster build-out. That's still an issue: MetroFi doesn't have an agreement with the utility; such an agreement would be the first in the state, and that may be what's taken so long. MetroFi notes that with just part of the town built out, they're seeing 1,500 monthly users averaging 30 hours a month each.
New Orleans's network won't expand: EarthLink's built out 20 sq mi of the city that's struggling to recover, but won't build the rest unless there's a commitment to city service purchases.
Milwaukee, Waukesha networks' update: The article notes how both Wisconsin cities' Wi-Fi providers are having trouble getting networks up and running. But the reporters also include a few howlers in the middle, by my lights: "In Chicago, EarthLink Inc. wanted massive public financing for a Wi-Fi system, said city officials there." There are a few other similar sentiments. First, Chicago was negotiating with both AT&T and EarthLink. Second, "massive public financing," "more government money," and the government "invests in building the infrastructure"? No. In virtually cases, cities are being asked to purchase services, moving dollars from a telecom bill currently paid to incumbents or competitive carriers; that's a far cry from subsidy, especially if the wireless provider can offer the same service for less money or a superior service for the same money.
SF Bay ISP subsidizes Meraki routers for customers to build networks supported by ads: Neat idea, reported by Om Malik, has Sonic.net selling the $49 mesh self-forming networks below that price, and providing an ad banner that can result in some small amount of money to its subscribers. They're trying to jump-start hotzones.
The satellite-backed in-flight communications firm OnAir signs Chinese airline: With the Olympics on the way, OnAir was picked to bring calling, texting, and email to Shenzhen Airlines, with the first planes equipped by Aug. 2008. They'll eventually outfit all the 737s and A320s with service. Shenzhen carries 7m passengers a year across 130 routes inside China, and to Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam.