The Wi-Fi Bug

With all of the technology available to us, and all of the companies and organizations that want to provide the service or need the service, we should be able to couple the technology available with the financial resources available to make it happen. Going it alone, regardless of how large the company, won’t take us to where we need to be.

It seems there are three types of people who are interested in Wi-Fi. The first, of course, are Wi-Fi users who are, more and more, expecting to see Wi-Fi everywhere and for free. The second are the commercial wireless network operators that, more and more, are seeing Wi-Fi as one of their network off-load options to assist in managing the increasing demand for broadband services. The last are those who want to put Wi-Fi everywhere. They want to cover entire cities (muni-Wi-Fi once again), and now want to use non-stationary devices such as balloons and drones to cover large areas.

Along these lines we have seen Google announce its hot air balloon program, or at least talk about it while members of the weather community have stated that there is really no way to control where a balloon would be at any given time or where it will go. Unless tethered, balloons will wander aimlessly around the sky, perhaps providing access for a few minutes or hours and then nothing. Facebook’s approach is to use a combination of satellites, lasers, and solar powered drones that can stay aloft for a long time. However, all of these methods have problems associated with them and none are likely to provide 24/7 connectivity.

Google and Facebook are both making noises about serving the underserved, but of course they are both looking at gaining new customers for their own services as well. Sometimes a little walk back in time to see what others have done, or said they were going to do is warranted. In this case, there are several attempts at adding coverage and services where there have been none before. In the case of India’s early days of wireless services there were several interesting methods of putting wireless into the hands of those who could not afford it or who did not have service available to them.

Many cities offered taxi-related services to passengers (usually hand driven) while they were being taken from one place to another by letting them use a cellular phone to make calls to friends and families. In some small villages in India, a single cell site was set up in the center of town and a postman delivering the mail would also carry a cell phone. When the mailman showed up at your door, you were permitted to make a call to a relative or friend and talk for a pre-determined period of time. The cost of this service was underwritten by the network operator whose hope it was that the villagers, once exposed to cellular services, would sign up for the service. This proved to be fairly successful.

In the late 1990s, Bill Gates and Craig McCaw (with others) started a company called Teledesic. The idea was to launch 288 Low Earth Orbiting Satellites (LEOS) to blanket the world with “fiber-like” speeds to connect to the Internet. The project was seen as visionary but it soon became apparent that the cost-to-income ratio was in favor of costs, not income, and in the early 2000s, the program was quietly scaled back and then cancelled.

In the 2000s, the big idea was muni-Wi-Fi. This service would provide customers in cities and towns across the nation with Wi-Fi services for free or for less money than commercial cellular operators were charging. EarthLink signed up in a big way and built out several systems. The one in Anaheim CA was launched in June of 2006 with much fanfare. The city was behind the effort and EarthLink rolled out phase one of the plan with 70 access points per square mile. At the time of launch, we were hired by EarthLink to test the system for performance and operational issues. It chose our firm because we had written a number of articles saying that muni-Wi-Fi would not succeed, and that there was no economic model for it.

We ran three sets of extensive tests over the course of six months and turned in our report basically stating that the promised coverage was not being achieved, that the system’s coverage, data speeds, and capacity were lacking, and that in general, the system was not delivering. EarthLink, to its credit, added about 30 more access points per square mile during this time but the system was still not performing to even minimum standards. In 2008, EarthLink exited the muni-Wi-Fi business leaving Anaheim, Philadelphia, and other cities with some almost-viable infrastructure. Philadelphia tried to keep its system up and running but could not make it a paying proposition.

There are more examples of failed attempts to provide wireless broadband to areas that do not have any access. There are also some true success stories in rural America from small companies that make use of terrestrial wired infrastructure, TV White Spaces, and even some satellite services, but since all of these are expensive, the user community (those who can afford the monthly fee) remains small as well. The cost of deploying near-ubiquitous wireless Internet access to rural areas even in the United States is rarely worth the investment. In other parts of the world the costs are even higher and the population, as a rule, is not in a position to pay relatively large monthly access fees. Thus the quest to find ways to serve the underserved continues.

Perhaps the Facebook approach might stand a chance. Its model is quite different since it is not trying to go it alone as Google and many of the others have. Instead, Facebook has launched a new connectivity lab ( and is working with many other companies and organizations such as NASA’s Ames Research Center, Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL), and others. Still, none of these government organizations have built anything for consumer consumption; they are supported by government funding and are accustomed to spending millions if not billions of dollars on their projects. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out, but I remain dubious that solar powered drones flying 12 miles above Earth will be able to provide wireless Internet connectivity to the masses on a 24/7/365 basis even outdoors, let alone inside buildings.

One thing Facebook has correct, in my mind, is that it cannot achieve its goal alone. To cover those who today have no coverage will require partnerships. Even cell phone coverage is not yet available in many areas of rural America for the simple reason that it is too expensive for a single company to build out a system and the income from rural areas is not sufficient to sustain the cost of delivering the service. Some countries, such as Japan, require a nationwide network to cover a larger percentage of the population than wireless providers really want to build out but they know that is part of the cost of operating a network in Japan. We used to subsidize phone and electric services in rural America and the FCC is working on a funding plan for rural broadband services. Still, it will take partnerships to make it work. In third-world countries, costs are even higher and payback is even less.

If we are to provide Internet access to those who do not have it today, I believe companies around the world will have to come together as partners. When I was working on the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network it was always part of the plan to engage commercial partners to provide coverage to rural America. Even with rural cellular networks it will be expensive to provide the needed coverage, but it is also possible to build systems with multiple partners. In the United States there are two ideal partners in rural America. The first, of course, are commercial cellular operators, both large and small.

The second set of partners consists of companies with similar interests, such as non-profit co-ops that provide power to rural America. They need broadband services for meter reading and for the new Smart Grid approach to managing power distribution. They would also make good partners for reselling services to their rural customers. They have people in place, high-tension power distribution systems that lend themselves to being used as cell sites, and in many cases, they have millions of dollars to invest. Another set of organizations that could be helpful in these types of partnerships includes railroads that are already deploying their own broadband systems, healthcare providers, and educational institutions such as schools.

If we are to provide Internet coverage to those who do not already have it, here at home and around the world, companies need to partner with each other and perhaps even with federal, state, and local governments. I believe we are beyond the point where a single company or entity can afford to underwrite the cost of rural Internet, either wired or wireless. Perhaps it is time to bring all of the potential partners together and develop plans to provide these much-needed services. Yes, I said “plans” with an “s.” Each area of the United States, and each third-world country, will have its own assets and challenges. These efforts cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

More of the United States and more of the world has access to the Internet than ever before, but more needs to be done in areas where there is no access today. With all of the technology available to us, and all of the companies and organizations that want to provide the service or need the service, we should be able to couple the technology available with the financial resources available to make it happen. Going it alone, regardless of how large the company, won’t take us to where we need to be.

Andrew M. Seybold

One Comment on “The Wi-Fi Bug”

  1. […] sticks. Perhaps it would be better off to put together partnerships with other players. I have on several occasions written about providing wireless connectivity and Internet access in rural areas both in the […]

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