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The New York Times doesn't get to the heart of conference Wi-Fi problems: I can't tell you how frustrated I am about this rather facile article on problems with thousands of people all trying to connect at once to a Wi-Fi network (or networks) at dense public venues, such as keynote addresses at technology conferences. As someone who has spent a decade writing in depth about Wi-Fi, often for mainstream audiences, the Times piece disappoints me as it spreads myths and doesn't cast new light. It also ignores a couple key factors important in 2010. (Let's not even get into the fact that the picture with this article makes Steve Jobs look as if he's about to have an emetic event onstage.)
We have to go nine paragraphs into the article before we get to the "nut" paragraph, the one that states the reason it's being written at all. First, we wade through anecdotes of specific conferences, and quotes from tech smarty guy Jason Calacanis, who does not advertise himself as a Wi-Fi guru:
The problem is that Wi-Fi was never intended for large halls and thousands of people, many of them bristling with an arsenal of laptops, iPhones and iPads.
That's not quite true, although it's not completely incorrect. Even the first Wi-Fi flavor, 802.11b, was designed to be aggregated into "infrastructure" networks in which many access points with the same network name (Extended Service Set) could be roamed among by client devices. The 802.11g spec clearly recognized that wireless networks could be used by dense crowds. And 802.11n, one could argue, specifically deals with heavy usage by allowing multiple antennas to "beamform" or steer signals directly to clients, and "hear" more clearly by using multiple antennas to sift through competing signals.
(More technically, 802.11g split a network signal into many subchannels, any of which can be garbled and the rest get through; 802.11n multiplies the number of unique data streams that can be sent at once, as well as taking advantage of 802.11g's subchannel approach.)
Two grafs later, the reporter shifts to backhaul and wiring, noting that infrastructure in hotels may contribute. Then, in the next paragraph, finally gets to the heart of the problem:
Companies that install Wi-Fi networks sometimes have only a day to set up their equipment in a hall and then test it. They must plan not only for the number of attendees, but also the size and shape of the room, along with how Wi-Fi signals reflect from walls and are absorbed by the audience.
This is true. Not all companies that install conference Wi-Fi know how to build such networks well, but many do; they are hampered by constraints of time, equipment, and venue issues. However, many firms repeatedly install Wi-Fi networks in the same locations, so you would think that they would be able to learn from this, either in setting expectations or improving networks. (Please also read MuniWireless's post from a year ago on this topic, which includes an interview with Tim Požar about conference Wi-Fi. Tim was the troubleshooter brought in by TechCrunch in the 2008 conference Wi-Fail cited in the NY Times article.)
What's not mentioned until the penultimate paragraph (and then in a backhanded way) is the rise of 5 GHz networking. It's a gaping hole in this article, even though it's on the edge of being too techie to mention—except that the writer goes into a parenthetical about 2.4 GHz. Most laptops and some mobile devices can use 802.11n over 5 GHz. In the United States, there are 23 clear 802.11n 5 GHz 20 MHz-wide channels, 8 to 12 of which are commonly available in base station hardware. (The other 11 can be used, but require signal sensing that monitors for relatively unlikely military use in the vicinity. This sensing recognizes a lot of false positives, which makes the channels less usable.)
If you're one of tens of millions of people with a dual-band 802.11n router, you're using 5 GHz in your home or office. You might know (or have found out) that 5 GHz signals, because they are higher up the spectrum, don't travel as far. They attenuate more rapidly, which means that the signals becomes lost in noise faster than 2.4 GHz. In a convention hall, however, with line of sight to most access points, distance is less of an issue. 802.11n also contends well with signal bouncing, allowing it to work better than earlier Wi-Fi flavors using a unique path through space.
Thus, any conference Wi-Fi service firm that's not sticking in a sizable proportion of 5 GHz capable base stations, preset to nonoverlapping channels across the keynote auditorium or conference hall, is starting out at a deficit. Client devices that can use 5 GHz will preferentially switch to it if there's a strong enough signal. (Base stations currently don't have a spec that lets them tell clients to switch channels.)
There will be plenty of congestion in 2.4 GHz's three mostly nonoverlapping channels, because most smartphones can only use that band. (I'm not sure if any smartphone has 5 GHz built in yet, only tablets and slates, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Apple iPad.) Older laptops will also use that band. And the MiFi, which is also mentioned in passing despite being another key potential problem in convention keynote Wi-Fi mishigas.
The MiFi—for those who haven't heard of it—is a cellular router, the most popular on the market, that connects both to a cellular network for Internet access and operates as a Wi-Fi router. This allows a MiFi owner to connect from any device with Wi-Fi. It's a neat bypass. Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon also offer certain phone models that can act as portable hotspots in the same fashion.
All of these cell routers and mobile hotspot phones use 2.4 GHz, and create unique networks. The more unique Wi-Fi networks in the same area, the more trouble, because Wi-Fi uses different strategies to avoid conflicting with networks on the same and adjacent channels. This reduces overall throughput.
But it shouldn't be that big an effect, even with the hundreds in use at tech events, like the ones this year that Apple and Google had trouble with. The MiFi uses relatively low power, the backhaul is relatively low-bandwidth compared to the 802.11g standard (about 1 to 2 Mbps of cell backhaul compared to 20 to 25 Mbps of real Wi-Fi throughput), and the 802.11 specs actually do a fairly smart job of sorting things out.
One final problem: DHCP. This sounds even more obscure, and I was reminded of this re-reading the MuniWireless article from last year. As Tim Požar noted, some wireless service providers don't configure the server that hands out temporary IP addresses to wireless devices correctly. I've seen this many, any times. Some outfits rely on the Wi-Fi access points, a terrible idea; most of those can hand out a maximum of 253 addresses, if that many. An access point might be able to handle several hundred connections, but simply can't give out addresses.
In a correctly configured network, access points pass through DHCP assignment from a central server, but those servers can be misconfigured to limit to 253 addresses or fewer, too. A simple change could allow over 16,000 addresses from one server. (Technically, you'd modify the subnet mask to increase the pool from a /24 to a /16 on a private address range, as one strategy.)
What's most likely the problem is tech companies and conferences cheaping out. I don't mean spending very little, but less than what would solve the problem. I'm sure the firms that unwire events come in with bids that are as cheap as they can make them to be the low bidder, or have the conference organizer or sponsoring company ask, "How can we knock this price down?"
With the level of Wi-Fi use we're seeing, it's not impossible to build a good network for thousands of people in a small space. It may just cost more than anyone wants to spend. The line item in the budget for Wi-Fi needs to be connected up with the expected return on good publicity.
Organizers of day-long discussion about ubiquitous mobile broadband want to know what you want to ask: In Philadelphia on 22-Sept-2008, panelists from AT&T, Comcast, Sprint XOHM, The Wharton School, and Network Acquisition Corporation (the folks who will be operating the former EarthLink network in Phila.) will be on one stage at 6 pm at The Franklin Institute's Planetarium (free, $5 contribution requested, advance registration recommended).
The panel will discuss fourth-generation (4G) networks, including both LTE and WiMax, and discuss what these networks might deliver, as well as how Wi-Fi networks fit into this future.
One of the organizers asked if I'd solicit questions--you can post them below--which they'll try to ask during the panel. The group would then write up responses which could posted in turn here.
The powerhouse that is Kevin Werbach, a professor at The Wharton School, is moderating the event. Werbach has been part of interesting thinking about spectrum for many years, a former editor of Release 1.0, and a former FCC staffer. He'll share the stage with a fairly high-powered crowd, including AT&T's enterprise architect for mobility, the president of NAC, and senior people from Comcast and Sprint Xohm.
The event is part of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter series called MobileMonday, an interesting business group that's trying to provoke discussion and development around mobile technology and access. This particular event is sponsored by local business development organization Select Greater Philadelphia.
They don't have a snakes-on-a-plane logo parody, I'm sorry to say: The BWCS consulting firm will host its second conference on installing Wi-Fi and Internet access in trains. Train systems worldwide are piloting and rolling out service, the most advanced stages of which are in the UK and Sweden at the moment; California is a coming flashpoint, too. Putting Wi-Fi on a train isn't just about giving commuters or long-route travelers access to email and YouTube. Rather, it's about offering in-transit entertainment through media servers on trains; sending train telemetry back to control centers; remote video surveillance; and voice communication while en route. Passenger access is a bonus, of course.
The conference runs June 6 and 7, 2007, in London. Leading specialized firms and train operators will be presenting and sponsoring the event. (I would normally suggest attendees visit the London Transport Museum as well, but it's closed until this fall!)
If you'd like to understand how important network access is on a moving railway car, attend Train Communications Systems 2006: While this is a highly specialized event--taking place June 7 and 8, 2006, in London--it shows the tremendous scope of interest in the area. It's not just a few commuter trains and a handful of long-haul trains at stake here, but rather a radical rethinking of the role of telecommunications in rail businesses.
The first day is a workshop, with more a focus on information technology and telecom issues for rail operators managing their train lines. The second day has a greater number of speakers and panels and turns the attention on providing Internet service, looking at the whys and hows. The two days together cost £1350.
The first summit hosted by CUWiN was in 2004, and apparently connected a lot of dots (and faces) for those focused on politics and others on technology: This year's event, March 31-April 2 in St. Charles, Missouri, splits tracks for technology, implementation, and policy. Based on the previous event, there's very little talking heads up on a stage, and more symposium-like interaction. The cost ranges from $65 to $675 depending on type of registrant.
UnWired: Rural Wireless Conferences runs Nov. 1-2 at U of Georgia, Tifton: The conference will focus on the use of wireless technologies to enhance farm operations and rural life. I was asked to attend, but it's a bit geographically and topically far off from my usual haunts. Still, there's a lot of intrigue in statements like, "representatives from Cattlelog will show how radio frequency identification can help the cattle industry run smoothly and safely."
The summit includes the city, non-profits, and Michael Oh: You can't swing a Yagi antenna in Boston without hitting something that Michael Oh is working on. This summit is due in part to his efforts along with others interested in expanding wireless Internet access. The agenda is to figure out how wireless technology could make Boston better without, it seems, any particular hook like "free wireless for everyone." Meeting details are on Boston Councilor John Tobin's Web site.
Events move so fast, my head spins: a few days after covering the flurry of activity around the New Millennium Research Council's report discouraging municipal broadband, I was asked to moderate a panel on the discussion on March 14 during the South by Southwest (SXSW) music, arts, and interactive festival and conference in Austin, Texas. Esme Vos is also on the panel, from MuniWireless.com, and we should have a rip, and might I add, roaring time. The interactive part of the event runs March 11 to 15; the overall event is from March 11 to 20.
Analyst Craig Mathias takes a look at the technology of the future discussed at Wi-Fi Planet: Mathias obviously made good use of his time, and has a great summary of the event.
WiMax and mobile WiMax: Fixed has lots of potential, but mobile is a more complicated issue (as we've maintained in this forum) because it may take long enough to reach market and require enough spectrum and operator support that 3G (and 4G) combined with metro-Wi-Fi are good enough, cheap enough, and early enough to beat it. Mesh: One radio or multiple? The debate continues to rage. Antennas: Don't discount the role of an antenna in overall system performance.
The Blog Business Summit will take place in January 2005, focusing on how to use Web logs in, for, and around business: I mention this Jan. 24-25 event partly because Wi-Fi Networking News is a business blog of sorts--we're advertising supported through relationships with Jiwire and Google AdSense--and because I'll be speaking at the event. I'll talk on topics that include building a successful and profitable content blog.
Michael Oh attended Making the Connection: The 2004 National Summit for Community Wireless Networks in August: Michael Oh is the fellow behind NewburyOpen.net, and the owner of tech superpowers, inc. He sent in this report:
First off, I think the biggest thing was simply that everyone got together. The CWN (Community Wireless Network) world is something that we're all very involved in, but we're all very locally focused. It's almost by definition that we're mainly interested in our own hometowns, but sometimes that keeps us from seeing that CWNs all end up having a lot of the same challenges.
So, I have to give props to Sascha Meinrath and the crew at U of I that put this together - it was something that we knew there was a need for, but no one had done it - and they created it out of thin air.
I'm also surprised that so many people showed up for the event. By my count, there were somewhere around 150 people, from people like Rob Flickenger (of Metrix and O'Reilly's Wireless Hacking book) to Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation. More surprisingly, there were people there because their grants had funded them to come and do research on how wireless can help community development. That means that CWNs are getting a lot of exposure - and not just to the people that make them.
The turnout solidifies one thing - that CWNs are here to stay, and they are about a lot more than "competing" against for-pay wireless.
CMNs are about community, not about wireless. It's simple to say, but very complex to understand, since community is such a broad-based word. Still, this movement is one of the quickest forming community movements that I've ever seen or been a part of - and we all share the same idea.
That idea is that we all believe that community wireless will make a better world. We don't agree how, and we certainly don't agree what technology it will use, but we're pretty certain it will change how the world interacts. And this change is very different from how the corporations playing with WiFi in public spaces imagine.
The meetings were organized in three tracks - Organizational Models, Technology, and Policy. Going in, I thought that 2 out of 3 were of interest, but the Policy track was really kind of strange to me. I didn't understand fully how spectrum policy really would help the future of our cause.
This is one of the big benefits of the Summit - spending time with the policy "wonks" (which regardless of name, are very interesting people to hang around), at the very least because you're happy that SOMEONE is interested enough in spectrum policy to fight in the halls of Washington for us. Howard Feld and Michael Calabrese were people that I met, talked to, and understood after the summit. You may even see me in Washington sometime if they have their way... :)
Organizationally, the other benefit was meeting all of the other major CWN players in the country. There were people from NYC Wireless, Austin City Wireless Project, PersonalTelco, and others... We got to hang out, share stories of crazy wireless projects gone horribly wrong, and drink beer. I'm hoping that one of the results from the Summit is simply communication between all of the different cities, so we can all work together to further the cause.
I would love to coordinate wireless festivals in 4 major cities on the same day, share technology, or at the very least just have WiFi webcams that allow people in 4 coffee shops all over the country to say hi to each other. We would love to see projects like our Boston Music Project not only exist in 4 cities, but also be connected between the different places, so that anyone in a coffee shop in Boston could experience the newest local bands in Austin. (FYI - this idea was sparked by Rich from Austin's work)
It became obvious that CWNs were already diverging into ideas about culture, arts, media, and community content. While incredibly powerful in concept, we also risk losing the focus of people outside of the WiFi community with this divergence. If we focus on such broad-based ideas, we look a lot more like community non-profits and less like WiFi organizations. Unfortunately, "WiFi as commerce" is the baby of the business section, not "WiFi as community development." In my opinion, that's why all of the CWNs have "fallen off the map" compared to the T-mobiles and Tropos Networks of the world - they're just no longer interesting to the business community anymore.
But I predict that the next wave will be when CWNs begin to provide "national local" content providing interesting local content for their respective cities, but as part of a national movement. That's the vision that I have for CWNs going forward - it's just a matter of getting others to sign on.
Fact is, we're all volunteers, trying to feed ourselves with other activities, so the chances for success depend on how dedicated we can be to another cause when we're already stretched for time. Luckily, there are already great examples of how this happens.
One of the best connections that I made was Prometheus Radio, the guys that came from pirate radio and now specialize in 'powering up' Low Power FM (LPFM) stations. I participated in the Portsmouth, NH, LPFM barnraising last month, and they sure know how to motivate people. FM people have been fighting the fight for many decades - pushing back against the incumbents, correcting FCC shortsightedness, and organizing disparate groups all over the country. CWNs could learn a thing or two from them.
I think that if organized well, we can make the community wireless movement more than just an annoyance to the T-mobiles of the world - by providing content that can only be found locally. And the 1st Summit was a huge step towards that - even if it was just getting everyone in the same room.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will host the 2004 National Summit for Community Wireless Aug. 20-22: The event is organized by CUWiN (C-U Community Wireless Network) which is working on an open-source mesh project, and Prairienet, with the help of other groups and individuals. Their goal is 100 attendees from across the U.S., and they're attempting to raise funds for travel stipends for groups that would otherwise be unable to afford to send a representative.
The mission is statement is that the conference will focus on grassroots action, impacting national regulations and policies, and building a coalition of local groups, researchers, policy leaders, decision-makers, and community activists.
The cost is low: $30 for students and low-income; $75 for all others. They're encouraging press to attend, as well.
U of Georgia's Mobile Media Consortium has free event Apr. 24: If you're in Athens, you can see the mobile future in this afternoon-through-evening free event at "America's most beautiful university campus."
Wireless Week is posting PDFs of its complete show daily from the CTIA cellular industry conference this week: The show daily rounds up more than the press releases with a number of reporters (including Wi-Fi Networking News's own Nancy Gohring) interviewing company principals and filing reports at the show. The show runs through Wednesday.
Alan Reiter notes that the cellular industry's big CTIA event next week is in a conference center that thought it had Wi-Fi covered, but didn't: Alan notes that the conference center's management said they had Wi-Fi coverage, but when the CTIA organizers checked it out, the venue had seven APs (and two dead ones) covering millions of square feet. Needless to say, the CTIA stepped up to the plate with sponsor Cisco's help to provide free Wi-Fi in all common areas during the event.
Remarkably, the Atlanta Georgia World Congress Center hasn't had much call for Wi-Fi. This might reflect the paucity of service or possibly the center's fee structure for it, too. Or, when organizers discover the dysfunctional system, they book elsewhere. Let's not do a posteriori reasoning here, Atlanta!
Conference and trade show managers see a trend toward small, targeted conferences, according to a recent survey: Apparently the hottest conferences in 2003 discussed Wi-Fi and the managers expected Wi-Fi to continue to be a hot conference subject through this year.
The WiMAX Forum is holding a meeting the day before the Wireless Communications Association's conference the end of January: A portion of the WiMAX Forum day will be open to anyone and will review current activities of the forum and look at the future of WiMAX.
Wi-Fi Planet announcement round-up: Check out brief coverage of announcements being made at Wi-Fi Planet by a number of companies.
SciNet, a volunteer group, will build a massive network to support the SuperComputing Conference in Phoenix next week: Volunteers will build the network in a week then tear it down in two days. It sounds massive--the network will support 150 aggregate gigabits per second and will use more than $16 million in donated gear. Apparently that amount of bandwidth is more than some countries, including Germany, have available in total. As for the Wi-Fi component, the volunteers will deploy 67 access points to distribute the bandwidth around the conference.
Here's a good excuse to go there: A tourism and technology conference will happen in Cannes, December 11-12. One topic on the agenda is the business case for Wi-Fi in hotels.