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« AirFone Will Shut Down | Main | Fon Plans Million Router Subsidy »

June 23, 2006

Metro-Scale Wi-Fi as Ultimate Backup

You know who is going to buy accounts on metro-scale Wi-Fi networks and not even feel the pinch? Those with high-speed DSL, cable, and dedicated line connections already: I haven't seen this issue discussed one whit. Everyone keeps writing and talking about Wi-Fi networks that span cities and towns as primarily serving an audience that has no connection, has a high need of mobile access, or that has dial up and wants to move to broadband without paying a regular rate of $40 to $60 per month. (Let's ignore those promotional $15/month rates unless they really become regular--not for the first 6 or 12 month.)

But here's who is going to be among the other large consumer of $20-odd/month unlimited mobile/fixed Wi-Fi: People for whom Internet access is like breathing a nitrogen-oxygen mix. If you're part of the crowd that spends above average on broadband, say $60 to $100 per month for higher speeds or special features, you probably also own a laptop. Which means that an extra $20 per month for roaming VoIP, Skype, instant messaging, and all the non-business aspects won't be a big deal.

If you're a business owner--home, small, medium, or large--$20 per month as a backup policy against a broadband outage or a line cut that would take down a wired service is a pretty low price to pay just to have it immediately available as needed.

Remember that many of the RFPs issued by municipalities require net neutrality to be enshrined in proposals. Which, in most cases I've read, includes an explicit mention that any device may be attached to the network and used for any legal purpose. Thus sharing a single network connection when a business's wired line goes down is perfectly legitimate.

The municipal architecture for most cities is either switched or mesh throughout, and it's only dependent on a supply of power--I don't know city-by-city requirements for backup power on mesh nodes, and I think there's essentially no requirement for this. In Tempe, I believe six fiber drops serve the MobilePro network, with at least one dedicated to city purposes. Because they're switched, even multiple fiber cuts wouldn't damage the network. Likewise, a network like Philadelphia's, according to EarthLink's description, will be almost entirely wireless until you hit some fiber points of presence.

This alternate infrastructure could become extremely popular. Which then begs the question: When these networks are actually operational and where the operators are obligated to or desire to resell access on a wholesale level, will Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and others come around and simply make this a checkbox on customers' bills? "Add Wireless Philadelphia for just $17 per month! A discount of $5 per month off retail!" I'm guessing yes, because it will become another tool to reduce churn among its best members, and the equivalent of the limited free dial-up access that broadband providers offered in the early days (some still do).

Metro-scale Wi-Fi as a wired backup? It's a concept.

1 Comment

Glenn, you're right - and I said the same, by the way, as I blogged away after Hurricane Katrina. Go to to the archives, back to Sept 19, and see the blog titled That's What I'm Saying.

"That is what mesh networks would become for a community. Self-insurance, which would ensure that the community could talk to each other after a disaster, and get itself back on its feet ASAP, regardless of the speed of outsiders' help. And such self insurance is within economic reach of every town in the US. If we can't predict where disaster will strike, or how we wil recover, we can at least ensure that we can talk to each other so we can help each other. Mesh networks are a ray of sunshine in these dark times. And FEMA, Homeland Security, Congress, and the White House could earn huge points wth a disenchanted public by helping communities to build such networks, addressing the Digital Divide, conquering the rural broadband deficit, and all the while, making the nation safer, more self-reliant, and more resilient. It could happen. Call your congressman today."

Since the debacle last September in New Orleans, I've thought that these Wi Fi Mesh networks have been sold the wrong way - they should be sold based on their flexibility and affordability, not as substitutes for carrier grade networks, but as complements to them. We could use both, so important is communication to us today. We need insurance, and Wi Fi Mesh networks as overlays would be cheap insurance indeed, good enough until our reliable wireline networks come back on line. We have flashlights with fresh batteries in the kitchen drawer. We don't think to use them to eat dinner by when all is well, although we could. Instead, we have them around for when the lights go out.