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Andy Ihnatko, the hat-wearing, glacially intelligent Mac writer, seems to have woken up on the wrong side of his Wi-Fi network: Andy writes in praise of Ethernet cables, including tacking them up around the house. Sounds as if, as he describes it in his regular Chicago Sun-Times column, he has some ugly kind of Wi-Fi environment in which his wireless signals run as sub prime as many mortgages issued in the U.S. in the last few years. Bada bing! I gotta million of them.
Andy is no John Dvorak: he's doesn't use the language of super-hyperbole to provoke reasonable readers and trolls alike into providing some heat and light. Rather, Andy is generally reasonable and extremely funny. All the concerns he raises in this column seem to be better raised about 3 years ago: reliably, range, consistent DHCP assignment, throughput, and so on.
Andy, maybe you need a working 802.11n router and some modern hardware? Or maybe your apartment building is simply being bombarded by untoward RF interference.
Don't get me wrong: I like my copper Ethernet wiring, too, especially when I'm moving big files around my network. But with Draft N, I'm more likely to have a gating factor at my Internet gateway or a particular computer's ability to shoot files over a given protocol than I am by the network's raw speed.
The New York Times runs this story somewhat later than one might expect: I wrote a similar story that appeared last August in the Economist. This Times piece focused a bit more on digital divide issues without, of course, providing any substantiation that putting computers in people's homes makes a difference in their lives. Sure, they have a great anecdote here that a student with a computer and Wi-Fi service doesn't have to take a bus in a dangerous neighborhood at night to get to a library; but that hardly equates to information that kids and adults see benefits in their lives, like higher income, less drug use, higher entry into education, and less unemployment.
The article notes, "Philadelphia officials say service will not be disconnected." This is highly uncertain. They may get some cancellation penalties from EarthLink, and the $4m estimated to complete the network is both specious (the last part of a network is always more expensive to build; it's not linear to get to completion), and doesn't talk about the millions in annual operating cost. No private operator would take this except under contract.
Philadelphia's current CIO is noted as saying that "[m]arketing was also slow to begin, so paid subscribers did not sign up in the numbers that providers initially hoped." Also specious. Without a network that worked well, EarthLink wasn't inclined to market heavily. The same is true in most early big-city networks. Service wasn't good; why advertise for users?
The article makes the good point that the cost of broadband has dropped (at least at entry-level points) over the last three years, making cheap Wi-Fi less of a draw than it was in late 2004.
One major error in this piece, not uncommon: "Unlike most other cities where municipal wireless was going to be offered in free hotspots and at a reduced price for residential service, San Francisco planned to offer citywide wireless free in a three-way deal with EarthLink, which was to build the grid, and Google, which would have paid to advertise through the network." No. Google was going to subsidize a slower service, and EarthLink was offering a paid faster service. Google's service might not have featured any advertising, either. Further, MetroFi's model, in operation in several cities, offers free, ad-supported service, too. They're only mentioned in passing and not by name.
Sascha Meinrath is also quoted in this article using old numbers (Sept. 2006) about St. Cloud, Florida's network, a free service built at city expense. Those numbers are now 18 months old, weren't provided by the city, and the mayor who inherited the already-built system disputed some of the statistics and was vocal about various problems with the network.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune cautiously expressed optimism at US Internet's network: When I spoke to the editorial writer--I'm quoted briefly in this unsigned piece--about Minneapolis, I stressed that I don't have feet on the street, but I do have, uh, feet in my inbox. When things don't work in various places, with various services, or with various products, I do hear about it. Thank you, loyal readers. I usually know a few hours to a few days before something collapses, or when a product is utterly unfabulous from a Wi-Fi perspective.
And I don't get email with the anger, disappointment, or even intellectual curiosity about Minneapolis, in the same way I did about Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Tempe. Which leads me to believe either no one reads my site in the Twin Cities (a possibility), or that the network is performing more or less--note the more or less--as the reporting and US Internet indicates it is.
Which must be highly gratifying to the firm when they read this local pat on the back. The paper isn't trying to be dubious. Rather, it's not entirely clear why US Internet succeeded where so many other firms have failed. There are at least three distinctive elements to US Internet's deployment: they are using BelAir equipment, which is used in none of the large-scale networks that have failed to be built or that are faltering; they were signed up in order for Minneapolis to be an anchor tenant of a considerable dollar value (Houston being the only network of that scale, but much more expensive to build); and Minneapolis agreed to make upfront payments against future services to help US Internet finance and build out the network.
My article on municipal Wi-Fi appears in the next issue of the Economist, online now: Those who read this site regularly know my take on the matter, which is that overpromising of indoor Wi-Fi coverage by some firms and cities (not most, thankfully); an expectation of much higher subscriber numbers; underbuilding of the network in early phases based on overoptimistic coverage estimates; an rush to the bottom to provide no-cost networks to city with revenue chasing the subscribers who never arrived; and a lack of plans by most cities about what, in particular, to do with the networks that were being built has led to the current implosion.
While some folks in the industry have tried to persuade me that public safety money won't drive the future of metro networks, I find that as I talk to cities and counties--often dozens a month through casual email or more in-depth conversations--that unwiring public safety is a high priority. The 4.9 GHz band is really taking off, and the availability of equipment that's starting to become commodity priced for 4.9 GHz receivers and adapters makes it a good move for cities and counties from typically proprietary gear running on narrow slivers of bandwidth. (That's the whole Sprint Nextel spectrum reallocation nonsense still in play.) Not all communications are suited for 4.9 GHz, but a lot of critical ones work quite well, including video and high-bandwidth transfers from officers and workers in the field.
Combine public safety money with municipal needs as they better articulate them, and you have a business plan in which a service provider's first and foremost set of numbers deals with providing a fixed set of services at a given rate of profit. Adding service to the public for mobile and, as 802.11n starts to penetrate, some indoor access becomes an incremental revenue source above the baseline that the provider establishes to build and operate the networks.
As Chuck Haas of MetroFi point out to me, if a city wants to have a 4.9 GHz public safety network, there can be only one client and one line of revenue: the city. Thus, 4.9 GHz networks must be fully funded with the profit motive in mind. That provides the base on which 2.4 GHz networks could be built.
I wrote the first of these stories two years ago about cafes turning off Wi-Fi or changing their model after being deluged with barely- or non-paying laptop table campers: The latest installment looks at a few places in New York, where store owners are a little more than frustrated. Waltz-Astoria is charging $2 per hour for Wi-Fi or electricity, offering it free to regulars who sign up for their email newsletter. The Roebling Tea Room and another shop, Aroma, have covered their electrical outlets. Aroma shuts down Wi-Fi during lunch.
These campers spend from $0 to $3, stay as long as eight hours, and occupy tables for four with their lonesome, and use a few pennies or more of electricity, to boot! Now, they're a subset of all cafe laptop users. Myself, I'm often in some venue for an hour or two, spending $3 to $5, and taking the smallest possible footprint. It only takes a few bad apples, though.
My early story--tipped by a colleague who spotted the trend--covered Victrola here in Seattle. My editor back then asked, Is this a trend? Or is it just a few places? I said that I was pretty sure it was not a trend, but it was an interesting development that was likely to spread slightly as cafes, looking for an option, heard about the idea. Once you install Wi-Fi, it's weird to turn it off or change the terms of access; with a peer group of other owners, even those you don't know, it may be easier to modify what you're offering. [Link via Craig Plunkett]
The Economist revisits municipal Wi-Fi and finds it wanting: I wrote a rather massive feature for The Economist that appeared March 2006 expressing a host of technical and political reservations about the ability to build a Wi-Fi network citywide that conformed to the expectations back then. The magazine (not I this time; no bylines, so hard to tell) revisits the issue, and I find myself in accord with most of its statements.
EarthLink has pulled back and revised down its minimum captured user base for profitability. The density of Wi-Fi nodes required has doubled per square mile in many cases above early projections. Anchor tenants in the form of cities committing to minimum annual purchases are now required by many network builders. And so on.
My two quibbles. First, most homes in the U.S. aren't constructed with chicken wire in the walls; only some plaster construction--I think mostly in California--involve chicken wire. In Washington State, most homes have lathe and plaster or drywall, which have no wire in the walls.
Second, the closing statement seems a bit severe: "No, the future of municipal wireless broadband rests on making cities safer, saner and simpler to manage. Trivial pursuits like downloading songs or posting video clips can be safely left to phone and cable companies." I would suggest that mobile applications involving primarily outdoor use still have a lot of legs, as long as the finances support it. I continue to be concerned about the viability of building metro-scale networks that rely on in-home Wi-Fi as the foundation of their success.
The Wall Street Journal reports that T-Mobile will extend its converged cellular/Wi-Fi calling plan and hardware nationally: The plan, called HotSpot@Home, has been available in Washington State since October. The Journal calls that "Seattle" and "a few months," a dramatic understatement of how long T-Mobile has taken to shake the bugs out of this service. I was starting to wonder whether T-Mobile would ever launch nationally. The launch could happen in mid-June.
The converged plan uses a handset with both GSM and Wi-Fi radios built in, allowing seamless roaming among preferred personal hotspots (home, for instance), the T-Mobile HotSpot network in the US, and the GSM network.
When I tried it and wrote it up for The New York Times last fall, the roaming part of the operation--from cell to Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi to cell--wasn't up to snuff, but I like the Nokia phone I tried and Wi-Fi-based calls sounded great. The Journal says those problems have been ironed out through handset improvements, which I believe. The technology would seem to me to involve a lot of tweaking, rather than overcoming insurmountable odds.
The article notes that the $20 additional monthly fee for unlimited Wi-Fi calling, and $5 per month for subsequent phones in family plans, could be tweaked for the national rollout. In the Washington trial, you can also pay nothing and use normal minute plans to make Wi-Fi calls if you're after improved call quality in your home instead of more minutes.
An intriguing option I hadn't heard would be to extend the plan, allowing a landline connection in the home to use the same system, although it hasn't been set for launch. This is extremely simple to do because it involves no roaming and probably very little hardware--an additional plug on the routers that T-Mobile offers to customers with this plan. The router is free ($50 minus a $50 rebate), and supports WMM Power Save for improved battery life and WMM for voice prioritization over the Wi-Fi network.
The reporter hasn't done his homework, because he says that three European carriers are "launching" Wi-Fi phones: BT launched back in January, and seen 40,000 subscribers by early April, according to Light Reading. BT's plan includes their OpenZone hotspots, home service, and GSM as well. France Telecom's Unik converged service has done far better, with 100,000 subscribers, due in part to the telecom's success with a bundled broadband offering that has put 3.5m gateways into homes. These gateways are optimized for calling over Wi-Fi; BT and T-Mobile need to get gateways into homes, which is a higher bar to gain customers.
David Pogue reviews the latest Wi-Fi-enabled music player, and finds admirable features alongside showstopping problems: SanDisk has promoted the notion that its flash-based 4GB, $250 music player can access any of 2m songs from Yahoo's $15/month music service. Pogue notes that it can do no such thing. Instead, the player has access to only songs that are streamed via Yahoo Internet radio stations and a few limited lists, and some of those songs can't be downloaded because of licensing restrictions.
Pogue likes the intent of the Wi-Fi connection, providing direct access to the Internet via hotspots or home networks to download music and view Flickr photos. But, good gravy, the limitations are ridiculous. The Sansa Connect won't enable Wi-Fi if the battery has dropped below 60 percent; Pogue found Wi-Fi network connections erratic in his testing, too. There's no provision to connect to a network that requires payment or authentication. (One hopes they solve that through either Boingo or Devicescape or both.)
This appears to be a news article, but it's got a strong slant towards monitoring: The article presents a sensational opening! Child porn being downloaded! A warrant! Pounding on a door! But it's only an elderly lady, and she's not even stealing music. No, we get the specious fact that the police are powerless to apprehend a villain because the elderly lady is fiendishly operating an unprotected Wi-Fi access point. "Perhaps one of those neighbors, authorities said, was stealthily uploading photographs of nude children. Doing so essentially rendered him or her untraceable," the reporter writes. Not so much: Traditional police work coupled with an exact geographic location should have provided enough clues.
But apparently open Wi-Fi is a huge danger because this reporter hasn't heard of anonymizer and randomizer services that allow anyone at any public terminal--Wi-Fi, college campus, or even, gasp, at a workplace--to be used in a fairly untraceable manner. In fact, probably more untraceably than hopping on a free or open Wi-Fi location and abusing it, assuming security through security.
This quote is rather telling in the same manner: "Unsecured networks are a treasure trove for neighbors," said John Sheehan, program manager of the CyberTipline at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Those looking to access illegal content obviously feel they have anonymity" and can get away with it.
Again, if neighbors are gaining access, then it's easier to trap those neighbors through monitoring. They may "feel they have anonymity," but they have quite a bit less because of proximity.
And here's a nice piece of opinion right smack in the middle of the article: "Open wireless signals are akin to leaving your front door wide open all day -- and returning home to find that someone has stolen your belongings and left a mess that needs cleaning."
No, it's more like having an endless pot of coffee that you're willing to let anyone pour a cup from, even though you're paying for the electricity. The coffee is essentially free, because you're paying a fixed amount for unlimited java. The "front door wide open" argument applies when you intend to close your network and fail to; don't understand that your network can be closed (and if you did, would prefer to); or you're an incumbent Internet service provider arguing that bits aren't bits: one set of bits must be paid for differently than another, and sharing access is theft.
(I don't think that every ISP must allow sharing, and I do agree in following the terms of service agreed to. But given that the terms for broadband are essentially coercive due to the effect in the US of having no nondiscriminatory access by competitive providers for wireline access to homes, that means that the market hasn't decided that not allowing sharing is a reasonable way of doing business.)
The reporter also notes, "Closing cases is more difficult if the IP address originated from a wireless signal because it often leads back to the owner of the network instead of the criminal." That's only true if you're thinking about abusers has working from single locations. The writer notes that with an increasing number of open access points, the problem will get worse. Again, that assumes that you have thousands of people roaming across extremely wide areas to gain access. It's more likely that people act within a relatively small distance from their home, making a pattern of abuse easier to track down: "Hey, that guy downloaded child porn here, here, and here, so he probably lives about here."
The interesting point here is not that this story is biased towards a particularly naive view of law enforcement or the idea that there must be millions of people engaged in illegal activity over open Wi-FI networks; nor that open Wi-Fi networks are de facto bad and/or unintentional; or that this story has been told better, with greater balance, in other publications over the last couple of years.
No, what's interesting is that more and more home networks are being locked down. In informal and formal surveys by myself and companies involved in monitoring this sort of activity, an increasing number of home networks are locked down with strong WPA security, making them more or less impenetrable to even determined access. (WPA isn't perfect, but it takes a fair amount of effort to break a weak WPA passphrase--too much effort for a casual "anonymous user.")
So I would have cast this story as--how will law enforcement adapt when people can connect from anywhere at high speed and get on and off networks fast? How will individuals and companies who want to share access, whether from home or in a coffeeshop or even at an entire airport (Las Vegas, Phoenix, etc.) cope with law-enforcement demands? What's the rate of change for securing home networks against easy access? Those questions would probably have interesting answers.
Succinct, accurate survey in Time magazine of what municipal Wi-Fi is, the players, its future: An impressive effort in a mainstream publication to explain why cities have rushed in to build or find partners for city-wide Wi-Fi. The writer did an admirable job in providing opinions across a gamut without including, frankly, stupid or uninformed ideas. If you read my site, you already know everything that's in this article.
Time addresses an increasing point of contention that was first raised in 2004, but mostly papered over since: If the city government is involved in running or authorizing a network, to what extent does government have control over and access to your Internet usage; and to what extent is a municipality responsible for what passes over the network. Culver City is mentioned, home of the porn filter and the illegal download (by whose definition, we don't know) filter.
This article seems to indicate that broadband is still mostly in the hands of the better-off in the developing world: Still, the overall point is that growth and availability has surged in the last few years, partly due to the decrease cost of technology, and partly due to the increase cost of copper. The latter seems paradoxical, but it's apparently now cost effective to lay fiber optic cable because of copper's high cost. (This cost is extremely granular: a contractor friend about to work on our basement said that costs could change by a decent amount on materials for some part of the job due to copper price fluctuations.)
One industry exec says that the developing world is starting to feel the same boom that the Europe and North American experienced in 1999--when broadband went from a tiny minority that were early adopters or in the right place at the right time to widescale availability coupled with price drops. Venezuela has installed 500,000 broadband connected over the last 2 1/2 years, but will hit a million by the end of 2007. Argentina leapt from 115,000 to 841,000 lines over three years (as of last year). India has just 1m broadband users, unbelievably, and WiMax is widely seen as a tool to push users onto the Net.
The socket seekers heads an article about the need for travelers to find juice, not just Internet service: Yes, people are power mad in airports as they carry more devices they need recharging before and between flights. Used to be that you'd see one or two laptop owners near convenient plugs. Now, the well-equipped traveler brings a power strip with them to make friends. (Hey, now that spawns a lot of new pick-up--or plug-in--lines.) There's now a connection between the increased use of Wi-Fi and the corresponding pre-flight battery drain.
This New York Times article notes the cost of adding outlets during construction--about $150 to $200 a pop, commensurate with in-building wiring--but that it costs thousands to add electrical sockets after a terminal is built. Some airports are getting clever, such as Chattanooga, pulling pay phones to put in electrical circuits.
The article also notes that travelers don't make too much of a fuss about outlets, because they're not sure they are allowed to use them; they generally are, apparently. I recall years ago that I was a bit nervous to plug in, because outlets were sometimes embedded in the floor for cleaners to use.
Before we hear too much about how cell, WiMax, and Wi-Fi networks aren't as fast as promised, let's cast a steely eye on wired services: Whether fiber, coax, or phone lines are involved, the New York Times reports on how variables service can be at higher data rates. Wireless, of course, has more difficulties because wireline service tends to be consistent, with congestion being a secondary problem after basic line conditions. If the line is good, it's typically good for as long as the wire or glass is intact. The route out to the Internet at the ISP then becomes the next important factor, and we already know service provider dramatically oversell the ratio between downstream bandwidth to customers and their downstream feed from the Internet--ratios can vary from 20 to 100 to 1 oversell.
Interesting conclusion is that if you get a very fast service--like 15 to 50 Mbps cable or fiber--you're probably outstripping most Web sites and Internet services' ability to deliver. Thus, fast enough could really be fast enough. With enough speed, however, you could have true IPTV over the Internet, rather than over provisioned chunks of broadband that are set aside for provider-to-customer feeds.
There's a great chart embedded in this article that shows the price of various wired services at various speeds--although sometimes a commitment of 6 to 12 months required to achieve the listed price. This shows what $20 per month "1 Mbps" Wi-Fi will be contending against. I have long maintained that symmetrical 1 Mbps service over Wi-Fi has a great advantage over, say, 1.5 Mbps down/256 Kbps up DSL service, even if the latter costs about the same. The slight downstream advantage is outweighed for anyone who creates media and uploads it--like photos and video--for having that bigger upstream pipe.
For myself, I have Speakeasy Networks' DSL service at home (1.5 Mbps/384 Kbps) and work (3.0 Mbps/768 Kbps). When I perform downloads from companies that have large pipes, I typically see nearly the full speed that's feasible. I discovered a good test of this is to download files that are hosted at Amazon.com's S3 storage-system-for-hire. Amazon has a wicked amount of bandwidth available out to the Internet on that platform.
If you haven't gotten your fill of why the Zune won't be an iPod killer, read Pogue, Mossberg: The Wi-Fi-equipped Zune launches next week, and the two most widely read mainstream technology journalists have their reviews out--they don't much like it. I've been astounded that Microsoft would release a device with Wi-Fi that cannot sync via Wi-Fi to a computer (only via USB), and cannot connect to the Internet to download music. Pogue and Mossberg have broader critiques.
Mossberg is the kinder of the two. He likes some of what the Zune has and the iPod lacks, such as a built-in FM receiver, its larger screen, and the Wi-Fi music exchange feature. He also says the Zune correctly synchronizes music and other media files in a way that previous players that used Microsoft technology did not. Mossberg even finds the interface easier to use than Apple's. But that doesn't make up for a device that's "60% larger and 17% heavier than the comparable iPod," he notes, calling the design "rushed and incomplete." The battery life is poorer than the iPod's, too. The Zune's online store is much smaller than the iTunes Store, lacking TV shows, movies, and music videos, as well as audiobooks and podcasts. (There's zero help for managing or subscribing to podcasts, by the way.)
Mossberg heaps particular scorn on the purchasing model for the online store, which is the same as Microsoft uses for its Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft Points are pegged at 80 points to the dollar: $5 buys you 400 points or 500 points costs $6.25. Mossberg was irritated that you have to buy buckets of points in at least $5 increments; you can't just pay 99 cents via a credit card or other means to buy a 99-cent song, as you can with other stores. No, no, you have to pay $5 for 400 points and then use 79 points to purchase that song. I'm guessing Microsoft went with Points to tie in to an existing system that already supports worldwide purchase in local currency. The $15 per month subscription plan isn't being pushed, even though it's the gaping hole in Apple's music offerings.
Mossberg explains, too, that songs bought for the Zune will not play on any other music devices, and that songs purchased for playback using Microsoft's protected music format PlaysForSure will not play on the Zune. This latter fact came out months ago, but the former is worth noting as well, because it's been one of Microsoft's key talking points in critiquing the iPod/iTunes closed music format.
While he doesn't go into depth as to why the Wi-Fi features are a problem, Mossberg writes, "[T]he wireless music-sharing feature on the Zune is heavily compromised, in a way that is bound to annoy the very audience it is targeting."
Now David Pogue, a known admirer of Apple products and the iPod series (as am I), takes out an entire array of flensing knives to do his work. He spoke to a Zune product manager who essentially says that Microsoft's protected music system, PlaysForSure, is broken, which is something people outside Microsoft--including Real Networks, which just introduced their own system--have been saying for some time. Pogue quotes the Zune group's Scott Erickson saying, "PlaysForSure works for some people, but it's not as easy as the Zune." This is a remarkably strong statement from a Microsoftee, equivalent to burning villages and sowing salt on PlaysForSure's fields. More remarkably, Pogue notes, Windows Media Player can't interact with the Zune to load it with music! Another program is required for that purpose.
Pogue uncovers the fake scroll wheel, too, which isn't a scroll wheel at all: it's a round bezel that doesn't spin and isn't touch sensitive. Rather, it conceals four compass-point buttons.
But let's get to the Wi-Fi features. Pogue's tests show that you can send a song to another Zune user, the only use to which its Wi-Fi can now be put, in about 15 seconds, and a photo in two seconds, while video cannot be sent. Pogue states the Wi-Fi dilemma as "it's just so weird that Zunes can connect only to each other. Who’d build a Wi-Fi device that can’t connect to a wireless network--to sync with your PC, for example? Nor to an Internet hot spot, to download music directly?"
Pogue also jumps up and down on the restrictions for music sharing. There's no way for you, as the owner or creator of a piece of music, to tag it to not expire after the three days or three plays, whichever comes first, limitation of Zune's music sharing. (Mossberg found in his pre-release version that some songs would crap out after a few seconds or two plays, too, but Microsoft told him that's been fixed.)
There's a note of caution about discounting Microsoft too soon. As Pogue points out, all 1.0 products from Microsoft are "stripped-down and derivative," but research and marketing continues over year as they refine the product. Look at Windows Mobile 5 compared to any earlier release of Windows CE, for instance, and you'll see that Microsoft can create a smartphone and handheld OS that generally functional. (Although the OK button's function continues to be the strangest interface choice made in the history of mainstream computing.)
I'm cracking wise at the expense of a business reporter in Greensboro, North Carolina: The reporter is clearly just representing what was told to him in good conscience by the owner of a cafe in that fine city that had its Internet service yanked when it was discovered that millions of pieces of spam were initiated from their network. The Green Bean's owner is paraphrase by the reporter saying, "the agency that monitors the Internet for spam violations temporarily closed off the Green Bean's wireless access early this week after the spammer's mass mailing." I think he meant "monitors the internets"--all of 'em.
However, I crack wise because it's a problem that's been widely suggested as a flaw in free and/or open Wi-Fi networks operating all over. The terrorists might use them. Spammers might use them. Child porn aficionados might use them (remember the wrong-way driving, pants-down Canadian?).
What's more likely to have happened here is not that millions of pieces of spam were sent over the Wi-Fi network, but that a spam push was tracked down to having been initiated from that network. Sending a million pieces of email over a 384 Kbps to 768 Kbps upstream connection would take an inordinate amount of time and be noticed. Still a little tricky to state precisely what happened.
The "agency that monitors the Internet" would most likely be the ISP from which Green Bean purchases its Internet access. Green Bean charges a dollar a day for access, and might switch to a time-delimited password system. The owner might also put in filtering software to restrict outbound email.
Moyers on America features an episode on The Net at Risk: Airing next week in the U.S. (check your local listings), this episode--one of three in this series airing the same week--looks at the U.S. approach to the Internet and broadband, and why we're lagging so far behind the rest of the developed world. There's a subsegment on Community Connections, focused on Lafayette, Louisiana's efforts to build its own, city-run fiber-optic network and the full-court press that telcos placed upon its plans. The Lafayette effort wasn't the first time a city built a municipal network, but it was part of what fired off the current debate, now two years old, about the appropriate role of cities and private enterprise in assuring ubiquitous high-speed network service--and whether we actually need that service everywhere. I watched a preview segment online, and the argument seems heavily tilted in favor of Lafayette. [link via Jeffrey]
The New York Times offers some strange cover of Fon in Wednesday's paper: I don't quite understand this article, which I think fails to emphasize Fon's actual strengths and weaknesses. Fon is designed to be a Wi-Fi extension to fixed wireline networks. The company and its founder have emphasized time and again that if they are successful in their approach, traditional fixed wired broadband operators will sell a much greater number of pipes to consumers and businesses, not fewer. Fon is not mesh, and its pricing (for all but Foneros who agree to share their own active networks) is designed to discourage daily use--at about €2 or $2 per day, the service is intended to cost more when used every day of a month than having one's own wired broadband connection. (Or, in the US, an unmetered 3G hookup.)
When I was first writing secondhand reporting on Fon, when I was writing about the coverage and what Fon founders and enthusiasts were saying, I mistook some of these statements as Fon trying to challenge established hotspot networks. Some press releases and blog posts did and some continue to compare Fon to Boingo Wireless, noting that Fon had some tens of thousands of Foneros, and had exceeded Boingo's hotspot count. But these comparisons weren't apt, because most of Boingo's locations are centers of business, including places like convention centers, hotels, and 1,000,000-sq. ft. airport terminals; Foneros are at homes and smaller businesses, at least in this initial wave. It's very unlikely in the current model to see Fon locations set up in business traveler venues. (I later interviewed founder Martin Varsavsky, and learned much more about Fon's real efforts.)
Counting hotspots is always a tricky proposition, too. The Times article cites the 85,000 registered users and the "thousands" of enabled routes. Over at tech.am, Mike Puchol has posted an extensive analysis of data he pulled from Fon's mapping system and estimates 3,700 routers are online at any given time worldwide in Fon's network. Fon didn't respond to my request for comment, but Fon's founder responds in the comments that only newer firmware installations have a "phone home" option that shows when a Fon location is active; older firmware would need to be upgraded to appear as active on the map.
More problematic is how the Times article seems to equate public, for-fee hotspots solely with two failed companies, Cometa and Joltage, failing to mention the 12,000 hotspots in the US under management by Wayport, which include several thousand operated by Wayport for AT&T FreedomLink, and about 8,000 in McDonald's that Wayport provides services for the fast-food giant and to which Boingo resells access to AT&T and Nintendo. T-Mobile's 7,000 locations aren't mentioned, nor the thousands of other locations that charge for access or the thousands that charge nothing for access. These locations all compete in some fashion for Fon's mindspace, although the free sites are more "competitive" in that Fon will still charge a price--either dollars or participation.
I have to disagree with an assertion in the article, not credited to any interviewed subject, that 125 routers in the East Village constitute complete coverage. There's no way in which 125 routers of any kind but high-powered, externally mounted Wi-Fi nodes could provide any form of non-spotty coverage over that area. That's distinctly different than providing coverage in the right place.
The article also misses a point that I certainly also misunderstood in my early coverage. Fon is not encouraging its members to violate ISPs terms of service. A Time Warner Road Runner spokesperson trots out and says the usual thing about theft of broadband being like theft of cable--it's entirely regulated in a different manner, and it's a poor comparison--but Fon doesn't want its Foneros to use ISPs that don't allow or encourage sharing. They've been working over the last months to find either ISPs that allow it (like Speakeasy, based in my hometown of Seattle) or that explicitly will partner with Fon to promote it. They're finding more non-US ISPs, which I predicted would be the case, than those here in the good old Homeland.
Sascha Meinrath's criticism of Fon in the Times article is valid from the standpoint that Meinrath is trying to create robust software to bypass the control structures of existing monoliths to create more power in the community, and, in fact, faster overall networks in which the Internet path is not the gating item for bandwidth. Fon is trying to extend the power of wire in opposition, one might say, to mobile networks, which have been extremely expensive outside the US. (That's changing rapidly, as convergence of all kinds have caused home-country and roaming rates to drop everywhere.) Fon's founder, Martin Varsavsky--not mentioned by name in the article--has expressed interest in mesh networks and other means of spreading Fon's coverage, but it's not a focus in these early stages, and it's not the part that they are apparently putting their efforts into.
Finally, there's an odd reference in the Times article to Less Networks, stating that Rich MacKinnon, a normally sane businessman, having 100,000 hotspots in the Less network. Now, that's clearly outside the universe I live in. I have a query into Rich as to what he actually said--the citation in the Times is a paraphrase, not quote--because while Less has good software and is a growing business, this number would indicate that institutionalization is necessary for poor Mr. MacKinnon. Update on Oct. 10: MacKinnon was traveling and replied to my query. They have 150 hotspots, but 100,000 users, and hit 500,000 sessions recently.
[Disclaimer: I contribute regularly to the New York Times, and have written for them in the past about community Wi-Fi, Wayport, and other wireless data related subjects. I have also written for the Economist about aspects of metro-scale Wi-Fi.]
Airborne cell usage is coming; you can't stop it: For this article in the Economist, I spoke to many people involved in parts of the aeronautic world, including regulators, airlines, and operators, and found that the juggernaut for in-flight calling, messaging, and limited cell data is bearing down upon us. The US carriers appear to have little interest in voice, possibly because of the general negative attitude about it, and AirFone's lack of traction (albeit at their high price for poor-quality calls). European carriers, who typically haul people over shorter distances, appear to have greater interest. Service should commence on as many as six airlines worldwide by fall 2007, with some much sooner.
Ryanair told me their average flight is 90 minutes, and people are already high engaged in activities on board. They will like spend something like $20m--my very rough estimate--to add service to all their planes, but with calls priced at $2.50 per minute, they could gross something on the order of $15m per year from just 50 minutes of calls among all passengers made per flight and hundreds of text messages. Text messages should cost well under a dollar each, although prices haven't been set.
What we Americans fail to understand when we see $2.50 per minute as an onerous rate is that Europeans have been used to paying insanely high cross-border roaming charges, sometimes with the same carrier owning both networks. EU regulators have started poking at these charges, which companies immediately started dropping. Nevertheless, $2.50 per minute for the privilege of roaming in the air just doesn't have the same horrible resonance as it does for those of us who pay $80 per month for 1,000 prime and 5,000 weekend/evening minutes.
If you'd like some amusing reading, you can download comments made by individuals and other interested parties to the FCC for proceeding 04-435, which was the FCC's public comment query on the use of cell phones in flight.
My article didn't address the broadband side of the equation much because that's going to be a later development. I had one in-flight operator tell me that satellite bandwidth will be prohibitive to use in the way that Connexion resold it. Inmarsat's fourth-generation satellites may offer 432 Kbps over a single channel, but they charge $8 to $12 per megabyte for a ground-station end user's data. What that might be bundled for in the air is still unknown. GPRS will be likely from day one because the speed is low enough that it would be hard for someone to spend a fortune.
The US picture is much simpler because AirCell and JetBlue purchased air-to-ground licenses, which require substantially cheaper operations. They don't have to launch satellites, deal with long latencies, or pay middlemen for any service. AirCell expects 1.5 Mbps throughput in each direction, which is ideal for...lots of voice over IP conversations.
Interesting experiment for the BBC News Interactive section: They decided to test out Norwich's citywide service by working in the great out of doors. They had a variety of trouble with VoIP over Wi-Fi phones, but they did manage to use Skype on a laptop. Power, of course, reared its ugly head. Not signal power, but electrical. All four reporters ran out of juice within a couple of hours and needed to borrow a long extension cord to charge. (Photos)
You know a problem has hit the mainstream when it hits a Tuesday New York Times: My articles for the Times appears most often in Thursday's Circuits section, a time-defined region of the paper aimed at business professionals without IT backgrounds, frequent travelers, gadget freaks, and prosumers. This solid article by Susan Stellin appears in Tuesday's edition, which means that it's aimed at the general business audience. That means that VPNs have hit the mainstream, along with good advice for avoiding having your data snarfed wirelessly at hotspots.
I've been writing for years about the steps one could take to avoid snoopers intercepting unprotected passwords, email, and other session data that's not secured by a VPN or a secured SSL/TLS or SSH connection. But my articles have appeared in trade publications like Macworld and in the Personal Technology section of The Seattle Times, to name two.
A CNet editor is quoted in the article recommending that you avoid all financial transactions at, say, an airport, but that's probably condensed from longer advice. I always say that as long as your financial institution has an already-secured page on which you log in--that is, you're at https://mybank.com not http://mybank.com when you type in your account login--then you should be able to surf securely at any hotspot. (There's a known flaw in using non-secured pages for login, because evil twins and other foul Wi-Fi tools could allow a ne'er-do-well to provide a false login page with a false site to which your details are submitted. Secured Web pages for login mean that the page's security is validated by the SSL/TLS process before you type in your password.)
There's also good advice on using public computers. I have given up on that idea--keystroke loggers are too easy to install to allow any safe use of a computer you haven't vetted.