May 27, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
The citywide Wi-Fi reality check
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networks in the city of Philadelphia, and we didn't find any problems with interference."
BTS Partners' Schremp, whose firm has surveyed Boston for a potential Wi-Fi network, says he is surprised to hear that Philadelphia hasn't talked about interference as a potential challenge.
"I know Philadelphia has said they haven't seen any problems with interference," he said. "But in Boston, we see it everywhere. We've got a ton of schools and businesses already using Wi-Fi--MIT, Northeastern, Harvard. We have to be careful if we move forward with this project that a citywide network won't impact them."
Most experts agree that interference is an issue that needs to be considered. But they emphasize that every city and every community is different, and that with proper engineering the network can overcome potential problems, even in urban areas.
One solution to overcrowding and interference problems could be for cities to share spectrum that is already available from other sources. Schremp suggests cities partner with area universities and research institutions that already have widely deployed Wi-Fi networks so that citizens in the surrounding neighborhoods can tap into the networks and share bandwidth.
He said that many institutions in Boston are willing to cooperate on such a project. But once a system has overcome interference problems, the biggest concern is how to handle network abusers, such as spammers, illegal file-swappers and people launching virus attacks.
Security and business challenges
In general, operational issues, such as dealing with network abusers, could become more challenging for cities than the initial task of engineering and deploying a citywide network, Schremp said.
While most wireless products today offer adequate security to help keep viruses and attacks on the network to a minimum, managing day-to-day operations of the network could be daunting for a city that has little experience running one.
"Building the network is the easy part," Schremp said. "Cities also have to find a way to fund the operation of the network. That's the piece many people overlook. If an access point goes out, who will go out at 2 a.m. to climb the light pole to fix it? How much tech support do you give users? These are questions all ISPs and telcos have to face."
Cities also face the challenge of developing viable and sustainable business models. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, plan to sell access to the network on a wholesale basis to Internet service providers, telecommunications companies and nonprofit organizations. ISPs and other providers will handle all billing, marketing, customer service and the at-home equipment needed to pick up the signals.
But wholesale business models are not without risks. For example, the quality of the network infrastructure needs to be solid enough for other service providers to rely on it. And because wireless is relatively inexpensive to install, at some point it will become more economical for service providers leasing the city's infrastructure to build their own Wi-Fi networks.
Then there are cities that would like to provide some or all of the access to their networks for free. For example, San Francisco, which is still in the early stages of developing its plans, would like to provide wireless broadband service for free to all its citizens.
Experts in the industry say that these plans may be a little na?ve.
"The free model is not sustainable," said Amit Paunikar, a software engineer at Nomadix, a maker of wireless access gateway products. "Someone has to pay for the construction and operations of the network. I don't think that a lot of cities get how many issues will come up."
City organizers say they understand that the money will have to come from somewhere. Many cities are cooperating with local businesses and technology companies to provide free access in public places. They plan to use advertising on splash pages and local portals to drive revenue.
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom "really wants us thinking of new ways of doing things," said Chris Vein, senior technology advisor in the office of the mayor of San Francisco. "The goal is to create a service that's free to all citizens. But I don't know yet how we will do that. Some funding could come from partnerships or advertising, or some could from taxes. My job is to figure that out."
To be sure, the challenges of deploying citywide networks have given some cities pause. Earlier this month, a study group in Pittsburgh, Pa., recommended to the city council that the city wait to consider deploying Wi-Fi until officials have studied deployments in other cities.
"Using Wi-Fi to provide broadband to an entire city is still pretty new," said Alex Thomson, a local lawyer who chaired the 25-member committee examining this issue. "Our thinking was, do we really want to be the guinea pig? Philadelphia is getting a lot of great press out of this, but we still have to wait and see if the network really gets built and if it works like they hope it will."
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