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An area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, nicknamed DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), gets free Wi-Fi: New York has precious little free Wi-Fi, even though non-profit groups like NYCWireless and private firms have worked at times with business districts and parks to get some action going. A number of different parties worked together to make the Dumbo Wi-Fi zone happen: the neighborhood improvement district, the Two Trees Management Company (for site placement and funding), and NYCwireless.
More details are available at the Dumbo NYC site for that neighborhood.
The wireless backbone provider Towerstream will flip on a dense Manhattan Wi-Fi network: Towerstream built a wireless network in the skyline, paying for prime locations on the top of buildings to point high-speed service at line-of-sight locations where conventional wired or even fiber broadband wasn't available, would take too long, or wasn't competitive or reliable enough. Now it's taking aim at Wi-Fi.
But it's not trying to be a metro-scale Wi-Fi operator. That would be foolish. Rather, Towerstream is building out a dense Wi-Fi zone, described by BusinessWeek as seven square miles of Manhattan. The firm is deploying 1,000 routers, and the backhaul is clearly its own building-top network. Being able to leverage its own backhaul is a distinct financial advantage, as it already has a business model that works for the point-to-multi-point service it offers today. This is icing on the cake.
Towerstream will sell access to the network to carriers looking to offload mobile 3G and 4G traffic from congested, expensive cellular networks to Wi-Fi. AT&T has built similar zones itself, although I doubt quite as dense or extensive. Towerstream could become a vendor-neutral cost-effective alternative to carriers building these "heat sinks" for high bandwidth usage themselves.
Phone users benefit from this offloading as well as carriers. You get a much faster rate of service from a dense, high-speed Wi-Fi network than the comparable 3G or even 4G service, and no carrier in the US bills by the byte for Wi-Fi: if it's included, it's free. Thus, you can use much more data without hitting limits or paying overages.
The BusinessWeek article has a serious flaw, however. It misstates the nature and reason for failure of municipally backed Wi-Fi networks. The writer, Peter Burrows, makes a variety of historical errors, including stating, "While most of the failed experiments of yore were based on taxpayer-funded municipal projects, this time there's a clear business need for wireless carriers." In fact, there wound up being built no taxpayer-funded municipal networks. All of the deals involved cities or counties bidding out the right to build a network, with access to public facilities (conduits, towers, building tops, etc.) as part of the carrot. Very little municipal money was spent, while private firms went through tens of millions in never-completed network buildouts. Minneapolis stands as a shining example of the only network that was completed and thrived. (The city purchases services from the network operator, but the network was funded and is run by US Internet.)
Burrows also describes the router that Towerstream will use somewhat incompletely. He talks about it being an antenna, for starters, and claiming the units run $800 each. That might be the unit cost, but installation and providing an electrical feed will run the installed price much higher. He notes, though, that Towerstream will pay $50 to $1,000 per month to the owner of the property at which a router is installed. Nice fees if you can get them.
There's a great capper to this story: Towerstream's quiet 3-month test of 200 routers in Manhattan: "Last year, Towerstream conducted a three-month test of a 200-device Wi-Fi network in Manhattan. Without any promotion, the network handled 20 million Web sessions by consumers who happened to spot Towerstream when trolling for a Wi-Fi connection." That's the kind of data that might get carriers to sign up.
The Minneapolis city-wide Wi-Fi network is the only successful example of its kind for that scale of network: The next largest networks are far smaller or represent just part of a city. Even better, the Star Tribune reports that US Internet's operations are profitable four years into operation with 20,000 customers. The paper reports a $1.2m annual profit.
But why is it profitable? Because the city of Minneapolis agreed to pay $12.5m over ten years for services—services the city is hardly taking advantage of yet, even though departments are billed internally for them as part of their budgets. The city also prepaid some of these funds. This meant US Internet never ran out of necessary capital, as all its competitors more or less did, but the firm also didn't make new technology choices. It started with BelAir Networks gear, and it continues to use that vendor's equipment.
The failure to use prepaid services sounds much worse than it is. Having a viable additional broadband choice for service in a duopoly market, as well as one that's far cheaper than 3G cell for roaming within the city, has likely saved citizens millions of dollars over four years. Wherever there's the least broadband competition, cable and telephone companies drop prices, often better services, or have extended "introductory" offers you can renew by threatening to switch. It's hard to threaten if there's no second or third choice.
US Internet also pays into a fund to bridge the digital divide ($563K so far), and provides free Wi-Fi at 44 community centers.
As is usual with such efforts, the applications have followed the installation, and it's likely first-generation pilot projects didn't take off between early deployments of technology that wasn't ready and the economic collapse, which put some companies out of business or into retrenchment.
The city is starting to gear up, and within the 10-year contract, unused fees paid in previous years can be rolled over.
Comcast has followed in Cablevision's shows with members-only free Wi-Fi across its Northeast service area: The cable firm has launched 2,000 hotspots in New Jersey and Philadelphia. An Xfinity broadband account is required, and that account information is used to log in to the network.
Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner are using Wi-Fi to varying degrees to provide customers a reason to stay instead of considering Verizon. The Northeast seems like one of the only truly competitive markets in the country. Verizon versus cable providers has resulted in lower prices, higher speeds, and no monthly caps.
The National Mall in DC gains free Wi-Fi: The AP says it was a joint effort between the US Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Institution, and the DC city government. Cisco donated hardware; Level 3 backhaul.
AT&T's Chicago hotzone was launched today, the third in its pilot for offloading 3G data to Wi-Fi for subscribers: AT&T said its Chicago hotzone covers "Wrigleyville," the area around Wrigley Field. AT&T's first hotzone was installed in Times Square (Manhattan), and second in Charlotte, NC. The zones are entirely for its own customers, a way for the company to keep high data rates at a lower cost while conserving 3G spectrum use.
AT&T has added a second location in its outdoor hotzone pilot program: Charlotte, NC's downtown is the second area to get an AT&T hotzone designed to offload network traffic from the company's 3G network and boost performance for customers. The first such hotzone was lit up in Times Square in Manhattan; a third zone is coming to Chicago soon.
The idea of a hotzone makes perfect sense for a firm that's getting criticism for being unable to meet the data needs of subscribers in some cities and neighborhoods. Wi-Fi cells can be quite small, and have much higher capacity than cell channels, while being enormously cheaper to run, partly because there's no opportunity cost related to expensive cellular spectrum licenses.
These AT&T hotzones differ from municipal Wi-Fi efforts started in 2005 and mostly abandoned by 2007. Municipal networks were typically designed to require private investment by firms to provide indoor and outdoor network coverage to 90–95 percent of a city.
AT&T hotzones will cover outdoor areas of high traffic, and work only for customers. There's no specific municipal benefit involved, and AT&T will control its deployments entirely.
It's a smart move. AT&T could likely spend less a tenth as much in high-traffic areas to add Wi-Fi as to beef up cellular. And there's only so much spectrum available, meaning that in many areas there may be no real way to enhance the 3G data side.
This is Wi-Fi as a 3G network heat sink.
AT&T is setting up an enormous network free to its subscribers in New York City's Times Square: The Wall Street Journal quotes AT&T's NY network head as stating this is explicitly to offload data. AT&T had said a year ago that it was considering large-scale hotzones for this purpose.
I've been baffled that the company didn't spend a few tens of millions of dollars in its troubled areas (San Francisco and New York City, notably) for Wi-Fi. The Journal notes that this is a pilot test, and AT&T may install similar networks in one to three other cities.
AT&T already operates 21,000 hotspots, and the iPhone, 3G iPad with active AT&T service, and some other smartphone models actively switch to Wi-Fi for data when in range of any AT&T-run location.
AT&T gives away Wi-Fi at its hotspots to 32m customers, including smartphone, laptop mobile broadband, DSL, fiber, and business customers.
By the 2012 Olympics, Boris Johnson pledges full outdoor Wi-Fi network: The Wifi London project, about which I have heard nothing before today, will result in "every lamppost and every bus stop" having Wi-Fi nearby. Twenty-two London boroughs have signed on to the plan that would rely on existing poles to provide power and lighting.
Excuse my knowing laugh. From the dozens upon dozens of municipal networks that I followed over years, the biggest problem was getting power to poles. In some cities, like St. Louis, this proved impossible because lights were controlled for time of day through large master switches; there was no 24-hour power at the pole. In other cities, poles had ancient wiring, or were incapable of having additional juice pulled. In a very few cases, poles were available in most places with enough power. Very very few cases.
The network in Saskatchewan isn't exhaustive: A government-run free Wi-Fi network across parts of three Saskatchewan cities that cost C$1.3 to launch and C$340,000/yr to operate is patchy and inconsistent, according to the Star Phoenix, a local paper. Province officials are generally happy with the performance, which they describe as being useful for "light occasional use." The paper drove around to see how well it worked across Saskatoon, and found dead zones, places where the network came and went, and too weak a signal indoors. In a few areas, the service worked quite well.
A soap opera in St. Louis comes to an end: A provider in St. Louis County outside the main city that promised a novel use of proprietary Wi-Fi gear to build a network across a number of smaller towns is shutting down its operations. I recall hearing about what was once called Network 1 when a reporter from a St. Louis paper called me a few years ago for a sanity check on what the firm was describing. It wasn't unreasonable, but I couldn't figure out why the firm was promoting the proprietary nature of the hardware employed for backhaul. I thought it was likely an inexpensive mesh or long-haul system. The founder left, the firm changed its named twice, and it only built service in one location, O'Fallon, where it has "several hundred customers," out of 15 intended.
Meanwhile, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa region in Israel plots a wireless trial: No business model. No advertisers signed up. Cost estimated at "zero" due to advertising. No ISP chosen. Sounds promising.
One of the legacy muni-Fi networks will have new (or no) owners: Esme Vos writes at MuniWireless.com about the current state of the Riverside, Calif., network operated by AT&T. The network was the first and only bid by AT&T with MetroFi, which was unable to complete that network along with many others, and which shut down in 2008. In Riverside, AT&T kept up much of its end of the bargain, hiring Nokia Siemens to complete the network, which Vos says only reached 77 percent of the city. (One expects there's no SkyPilot gear left in place, either, but I don't know that for sure.)
The network has 20,000 daily users out of a population of about 300,000 (in 2000); the county has over 2.1 million residents.
AT&T wants to give the city the network at no cost, but the city is facing revenue shortfalls like the rest of the country (and most of the world). It's trying to get a federal grant.
Of the networks originally built in part or whole by EarthLink, Kite, and MetroFi, only a handful remain in operation. Philadelphia recently moved to take over the remains of the network there from an interim firm that had been planning to build out a variety of access services.
Minnesota Public Radio looks at what WiMax may do to the country's only successful for-fee city-wide Wi-Fi network: Brandt Williams examined whether Clearwire's WiMax service entering the Twin Cities could spell disaster for US Internet, which covers about 95 percent of Minneapolis with Wi-Fi service.
US Internet charges about $20/mo for a rate of 1 to 6 Mbps downstream, while Clear offers service for the home for $25/mo for 1 Mbps downstream up to $45/mo for 3 to 6 Mbps downstream (bursts over 10 Mbps) for unlimited use. Mobile plans are $35/mo for 2 GB of use or $45/mo (first six months at $30/mo) for unlimited use. Combined home and mobile plans are avaialble, too, at $50/mo for the fastest home and mobile service.
There's still room a value consumer in this space. I would suspect one of the typical 16,000 US Internet subscribers has considered and rejected $40 to $60 per month for bundled and unbundled cable modem service, even though that would be far faster and is generally available in the city. The same subscribers might have a laptop or iPod touch that they use for access with the same account while out and about.
Because $20/mo used to be the baseline for dial-up service, that number still has some resonance in predicting whether people will jump up to the next level. You can listen to the story right here:
There was a time five years ago when you were legally obliged to mention Chaska, Minn., when writing about city-wide Wi-Fi: The small town was an early entrant into the idea of dealing with local broadband market failure to let residents jump from dial-up to a semblance of high-speed Internet. In some cities, like Lompoc, Calif., which launched efforts around the same time, cable and telco firms stepped up and made the Wi-Fi networks nearly unnecessary for indoor use.
Chaska.net still operates, however, although the operation is servicing debt and not accruing capital, which is the goal; current expenses aren't mentioned, but the setup costs were $3.3m, including $1m in fiber expense, the article in the Chaska Herald reports.
The network doesn't deliver just Wi-Fi in the city, but is part of a backbone that brings point-to-multipoint wireless broadband to smaller towns nearby, and to 36 business customers in town.
Chaska has a fairly stable base of about 2,100 subscribers, the article notes, expecting just a net add of 60 per year in the future. That's a huge uptake for a town that in 2000 has 24,000, which likely means 5,000 to 8,000 households. Subscriptions would likely be higher except the ability to get a signal isn't uniform across the town, which is true of all wireless systems, but Wi-Fi's low power limits makes it particularly susceptible.
Chaska was used by Tropos as its poster child when that firm was out trying to persuade firms and cities that high-quality "mesh" networks could be built for indoor and outdoor service using 20 to 25 nodes per square mile. Chaska never lived up to its marketing in those early days, and, Tropos at one point (apparently at its own cost) swapped out all the initial nodes installed in the city. I wrote rather heatedly about what I viewed as misleading information provided back on 12 June 2006.
It's nice to see that things worked out in Chaska. I should also note that this story, written by a local reporter, is the best example of local journalism looking at these sorts of networks that I've read in six years of covering municipal and metro-scale Wi-Fi.
Portland, Ore., was the big win for MetroFi, back in the day, the flagship network that never was: MetroFi was unable to make its gear and business model work in a way that let them move forward, and I won't rehash the process that led them to exit the working world. However, the company left behind hundreds of SkyPilot distribution and backhaul nodes, and a $30,000 bond to remove them. The city estimates the cost will be double, and the equipment has nearly no resale value.
Mike Rogoway of the Oregonian reports that the first batch of removed gear will be handed off to Personal Telco, one of the longest-running community wireless efforts in the world, which operates a variety of free service around town. The group hopes to be able to repurpose the nodes, but I'm dubious. SkyPilot's end-point nodes had two radios, one designed for 2.4 GHz 802.11g access, and the other at 5 GHz to work with its unique point-to-point system.
(SkyPilot's approach had 8 antennas in a sectorized in its backhaul units that used GPS time synchronization to make precise, very high power point-to-point connections at scheduled intervals. One backhaul node could deliver narrow extremely high-signal power zaps of wireless communication in 8 directions seemingly "at once.")
This means that the Wi-Fi nodes have to be served by SkyPilot backhaul devices, which in turn require precise orientation and placement along with back-end management software, which was typically licensed separately.
Personal Telco suggested to Rogoway that it might disassemble them for parts, but four-year-old gear that's designed for this particular a purpose probably has little of interest, even for free.
The Miami Times finds that a network that cost $5m to build still has spotty coverage: The contract was signed with IBM in 2006, and the network only recently came online. While it has municipal purposes, it's been pushed as a way for the public to get free Wi-Fi. The reporter wasn't impressed in his attempts to gain access.
The price tag is pretty high unless there were commensurate municipal purposes in which costs were conserved and service improved, and that doesn't appear to be the story the city is telling. The city's project manager says "16,500 people have signed up to use" the network, but as we've seen with other large-scale networks, it's never quite clear whether that's unique devices, sessions, etc. "Users" is often used broadly.
Finally, I missed the mayor of Miami Beach's badly researched comment back in October, reproduced here: "We are the first in the country to have a free citywide hotspot." Except neighbor St. Cloud, Florida, and Mountain View.
The folks at Novarum, who include two of the pioneers of Wi-Fi, offer a free report on outdoor Wi-Fi network building: The recommendations aren't surprising to anyone who has followed this site. Novarum recommends a whopping 60 access points per square mile to exceed 90 percent coverage for 802.11n laptops at rates higher than expected 4G cellular network speeds.
That's a high bar, but Novarum has tested existing networks, and it's not far off from what's been documented in the field. There's a joke in the report in the form of a headline on page 5 that reads, "60 is the new 20." Way back in 2004/2005, metro-scale Wi-Fi companies were saying good coverage could be achieved with as few as 20 nodes, which proved laughably low.
Older 802.11g network hardware can't deliver, the company says, with 80 percent coverage provided for laptops and 50 percent for smartphones. However, Novarum also says smartphones might see just 50 to 75 percent coverage for smartphones from high-quality 802.11n network.
The company recommends that 802.11n be used in both 2.4 and 5 GHz bands, and that 802.11b be avoided on clients.
This report is based on 175 network analyses in 36 cities over a 3 1/2 year period.
The town of Swindon, England, will provide free Wi-Fi to residents: The project is estimated at just £1m to install 1,400 access points around the city, which seems rather inexpensive--could that possibly include installation, backhaul, network operations, and bandwidth? The network is described as a mesh, but it's hard to know what that means these days, as the term is used too loosely.
Usage will be limited on the free service, but that hasn't been described in any of the reporting. An hour a day? 100 MB a month? A 20 Mbps (noted as 20 MB in the Guardian story) service will be available as an upgrade, but I don't know of any Wi-Fi network capable of delivering 20 Mbps on a distributed basis. 20 Mbps is tricky enough in the home over any distance.
Color me dubious about the particulars. The Web site for the service, dubbed Signal, is unpopulated. International coverage of this story is breathless, quotes from the press release, and doesn't ask anyone from the company or elsewhere about how this could possibly work.
At least the firm plans to use WPA encryption, according to its press release. The company also recommends using a "wireless" repeater, which means there's a hidden $50 to $150 cost in obtaining such an item to pull the signal in from outside.
The network will apparently be up and running by April 2010, with an initial phase launched in December 2009. Funds will be used from both public and private sources, and a local businessman's firm, Digital City UK, will handle the buildout. The Swindon town council owns 35 percent of the venture.
I don't see how the stated goals, costs, deployment, and service is feasible. I'm looking forward to further details.
Ruckus Wireless launches outdoor infrastructure for wireless broadband: Ruckus must like what Meraki has been up to, as the wireless firm has launched its own ecosystem for inexpensive, Wi-Fi based wireless broadband. The company has some remarkable international commitments to use the technology.
From where I sit, Wi-Fi-based broadband is a developing world and also-ran approach where either cellular or WiMax equipment isn't available or is too expensive. Wi-Fi emerged in the mid-oughties (2004-2007) as an option because it was an interim measure: a way to get faster speeds than cellular and often than most of the installed wireline broadband before those technologies had matured.
With an LTE and WiMax roadmap in the US and LTE in Europe, along with widely available WiMax gear for the quasi-licensed 3.5 GHz band in the US (for generally secondary markets), and vastly improved cable, DSL, and fiber rates across a good hunk of the installed broadband base, it's hard to see how broadband Wi-Fi carves out a niche where it can be cheaper, better, and ubiquitous.
However, there are 5 billion people in markets in which that's not going to be the case, and all research shows that those folks are heavy metered mobile data consumers where they can afford it. Layering broadband Wi-Fi on a best effort ability into areas where there's no reasonable or well-priced second choice could be a winning strategy.
Folks involved in running the Milpitas, Calif., network alerted me that I'd left them out of a recent article about free city-wide service: The Milpitas network was built in part by EarthLink, which offered the network at a song to the city government when the dial-up giant exited the municipal wireless business. A non-profit group, Silicon Valley Unwired, is running the network.
The free network that covers the small city of St. Cloud, Flor., is still in jeopardy: The Orlando Sentinel looks at how St. Cloud residents use the free network that's paid for by the city. Earlier this year, the city council looked to shed the $30K per month paid for service and upkeep due to a shrunken budget. Residents begged the city to continue the network, and the council was able to extend service until January, at which point all bets may be off.
The network is the only publicly funded free Wi-Fi network in the United States that attempts to cover a city and provide indoor access. Previously, I had stated more broadly (and incorrectly) that it was the only city-wide free network, but Phil Belanger among others reminded me that the Google-run Mountain View, Calif., network has a long history of free operation as well.
Still, there are only a handful of public access networks of any kind that cover cities. Miami Beach, Flor., apparently this week just got its act together after years of work to push out city-wide service, with the intention of covering 70 percent of indoor users and 95 percent of outdoor locations with free service. We'll see how that pans out.
Back in St. Cloud, the biggest impact of the network's potential disappearance is on, as usual, the city's most vulnerable population, including Del Miller, who relies on the service for personal contact and vital communications, and Patricia Bennett, who has no car, and would otherwise be unable to keep up her job search and maintain unemployment benefits.
Vulnerable and unemployed citizens might be better served by creating a public-private partnership with the city kicking in some money for subsidized home service, or working with incumbent carriers for low-income services. AT&T, I believe, still has a $10/mo. low-speed DSL offering which would easily be as fast as whatever the St. Cloud network delivers over Wi-Fi.
When city-wide Wi-Fi was first proposed, one of the key reasons was a lack of affordable access for all residents. While the availability of broadband has improved, its affordability has not.