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.

"The free model is not sustainable."
--Amit Paunikar, software engineer, Nomadix

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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Disclosure
In the interests of disclosure, it should be noted that Schremp's consulting clients include incumbents such as Verizon and Comcast
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Free access vs paid
The telco's and ISP's do have a legitimate complaint if the goverments are playing a active role in providing a paid wifi service.

On the otherhand I don't have a problem with providing free access. One way to offset the costs would be to allow organizations such as socalfreenet to put up wireless access points on government property. This a good solutions local government owns a lot of property and has existing fiber as well.
Posted by rshimizu12 (98 comments )
Link Flag
reality check
Reality check, indeed.

The technological problems involved in making Philly a wireless city are, I am certain, totally beside the point.

I have lived in Philly since 1974 -- I sincerely believe that the scheme is merely a way for city council to scare Comcast (the city's cable provider) and local telecommunications providers into paying serious money to make the wireless proposal go away.

Some twenty years ago, the City government took forever to decide on what company would be the city's cable TV provider. Comcast finally won out and went on to become HUGE. Many in city and state government profitted HUGELY from stock that was liberally strewn around Council, the mayor's office and Harrisburg by Comcast in its bid for the monopoly.

That was 20 years ago -- it's been a while, and the local pols smell the possibility of another HUGE payday. Believe me, Philly city council is not a a hotbed of technological visionaries. I suspect the extent of most members' interest in hardware begins and ends with Rolex watches.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
What reality check?
While there are certainly pros and cons to municipal run wi-fi systems tech problems are not one of them. If cable companies and other comm companies can hire the expertise and find the solutions so can municipalities. Anybody, including governments, can hire all the experts they need and to imply otherwise is simply shilling for the corporations.
Posted by Michael Grogan (308 comments )
Reply Link Flag
systems tech problems
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Posted by George Cole (314 comments )
Link Flag
The same City is Closibg Firehouses
This is the same City that is closing Firehouses and laying off Police Officers, but we can afford to go WiFi. The same City where Millions of Dollars are owed to the Municipally owned Gas Works and Water Department, that they can't collect. The same City where the Mayor and his State Rep. Brother never paid their own Gas Bill. The same City in which those who never pay their Utility Bill, but have Computers will now be able to get it Free, because this same City will be unable to collect from them.
Posted by bigbear639 (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Your point being?
What is your point, exactly?
Posted by DeusExMachina (516 comments )
Link Flag
Technical accuracy, please
I believe Ms. Reardon is referring to 2.4 GHz, not MHz, and I know of no commercial garage door openers that use the 2.4 GHz frequency.

Frank
Posted by frnkblk (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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