New York Times reports on Manchester, England's efforts to improve people's lots with broadband over Wi-Fi: While I might quibble with a few of the technical and social details, the article's main thrust appears dead on. Give people a feed, and they'll open their own eyes to the potential with a little prodding and training. In fact, the woman profiled is not only apparently an auto-didact, but also went into teaching as her method of pulling herself out of poverty.
Let me point out just one statement that needs a little clarification in two directions. Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, has generated a lot of excitement here and in the United States as a way to offer high-speed Internet access in airports, cafes, bars and restaurants ? anywhere one finds a surfeit of laptop-toting customers and a scarcity of telephone jacks. This may represent more of the reporter's own understanding of the issue and the people he interviewed. In fact, at least tens of thousands of people are using wireless broadband as their solution, mostly in smaller and rural towns. And it's not a scarcity of telephone jacks: in those places he cites, there may be thousands of jacks; it's speed and convenience coupled with cost.
An interesting point about the Manchester Wi-Fi is that it covers just one district of 4,500 homes and about 15 percent have signed up so far. The rate being charged is probably about the same for a voice phone line (if I have any idea what BT charges), and estimates are that in Manchester, 25 percent of residents have no landline because of disconnection or having switched to cellular.
I'd be curious if the folks who have hooked up are also largely using Voice over IP (VOIP) to the PSTN (publicly switched telephone network), which is a much more important use outside the US for non-middle-class Internet access. I heard Adam Clayton Powell III talk back in 2000 about visiting the tiniest villages in Ghana were people were lined up outside little Internet shacks to pay reasonably large sums to make VOIP calls. In New York City, at the easyEverything cafe (a British chain), every terminal was equipped with a telephone handset for VOIP.
But as 3G has been delayed by financial and technical hurdles, some providers now view Wi-Fi as a potential stopgap technology, until 3G is ready. 3G will never be ready enough to have the kind of bandwidth that Wi-Fi can offer. I realize there's a missing piece in all 3G and Wi-Fi articles: the backhaul. While folks in the industry point this out, you rarely see a mainstream article mention that 3G backhaul could be infinite (many 3G towers would be linked via fiber optic) but that spectrum is so scarce that they have an effective local limit that can't be affected by more backhaul. Wi-Fi backhaul, by contrast, is finite: service to specific points still costs a lot.
At some point wireless backhaul (a la 802.16a) catches up with wireless "front haul" (a la Wi-Fi) and you can affordably deliver, say, 150 Mbps to a Starbucks, and have dozens of 802.11a or 802.11b/g streaming video simultaneously. That's the real end game for Wi-Fi hot spots in which compelling applications that require broadband drive adoption of fixed-rate subscribers to networks that offer the backhaul. Let's stop talking about number of locations and start talking about data feeds.