Déjà Vu Yet Again?

The latest “new” free Wi-Fi attempt is in New York City. The New York City project is, yet again, converting the city’s phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots. I say “yet again” because if you google Wi-Fi for ‘NYC Telephone Booths’ you will find news articles spanning a number of years and covering different attempts at the same thing.

Well, 2016 has arrived, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is in full swing this week, and hundreds of companies are touting the next big thing. LTE, or 4G, is already being relegated to last year’s technology as 5G, which does not even have a formal definition yet, is garnering all the press. And guess what? Yes, it is here again, Muni-Wi-Fi!

The latest “new” free Wi-Fi attempt is in New York City. The New York City project is, yet again, converting the city’s phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots. I say “yet again” because if you google Wi-Fi for ‘NYC Telephone Booths’ you will find news articles spanning a number of years and covering different attempts at the same thing. First was Verizon Wireless in 2003. This effort fizzled out after only a few months, then in 2012 there was another try, this time by the city and  Google. This past month the Mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio, announced, yet again, that phone booths in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island will be converted to provide free Wi-Fi within 150 feet of each one.

Actually, this is a much more ambitious project with huge rewards for the city, or so some within the city seem to believe. According to the press release, “The new and improved booths would not only provide Wi-Fi, but also contain free cell phone charging stations and interactive touch screens with information on local attractions. The city says that the new franchise would produce $17.5 million in annual revenue by the end of June 2026, with potential franchisees including Verizon Wireless and AT&T.”

The money and companies behind the LinkNYC project include Qualcomm and Google-backed Sidewalk Labs, and is slated to cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion. The Wi-Fi hotspots will be encrypted, and while user data will be collected, we are assured by the company deploying the system that it will not contain any personal data but will be used for marketing purposes. The system is supposed to be a revenue generating system for NYC by virtue of ads on the TV screens.

This third attempt should prove interesting. Muni-Wi-Fi has been installed, ripped out, installed, and ripped out multiple times over the past ten or more years. When I moved to Phoenix in September I noticed that many light poles in the city are still adorned with Metricom access points. Do you remember Metricom? Turns out the system, which has been off the air for a decade, is too expensive to remove so as lights need attention, they sometimes remove the access points…and sometimes don’t!

I have been writing about, and skeptical of, Muni-Wi-Fi since the early 2000s and have witnessed multiple attempts in multiple cities. I have always questioned Muni-Wi-Fi because of the lack of a business model, a lack of penetration into buildings, and the backhaul required by mesh networks. The NYC system does not use a mesh network as each telco booth is apparently fed with its own connection, but I still don’t understand the potential business model. We will have to see where the system goes, how long it survives, and who uses it. I can imagine it being used by some undesirable street types who prey on tourists and residents alike, and I am not at all sure that given today’s wide-area data plans I would seek out a payphone hotspot to surf the web for the closest pub. The theoretical business model is the income from digital mini-billboards that can be changed remotely as new ads are cycled through. The city is not putting up any money since the companies involved in the venture are funding the project.

This will be an interesting one to watch. With all of the partners involved I am sure most within the NYC government don’t see how this can fail. However, they should be reminded of all the previous not only Muni-Wi-Fi failures but the combined business partnership failures of the two largest backers of this program. Just because they are big does not mean they are infallible.

Wi-Fi Going Forward

Wi-Fi is everywhere. Only a few years ago there were databases so we could find a Wi-Fi hotspot to use, but today you don’t need a database. Simply turn your device on and you are presented with a host of options. Now many of the networks are encrypted as they should be and there are more and more free access points, even in doctors’ waiting rooms.

The use of Wi-Fi has changed over the last few years as well. It has gone from a local connection to gain access to the Internet for surfing and email to a medium for streaming videos and off-loading commercial networks for broadband, text, and even voice services. It is built into automobiles, available on trains, part of your cable TV modem, built into your smart TVs, and is even being used for wireless keyboards, mice, and other devices. In other words, we are living in a Wi-Fi world. However, the Wi-Fi world is a shared world. Today there are only two Wi-Fi bands, the 2.4-GHz band and 5.8-GHz band. More Wi-Fi spectrum is coming, we are told, but today we have to live with what we have.

Those of us who have used Wi-Fi in our homes for a long time have long ago abandoned the 2.4-GHz band and moved up to 5.8 GHz. Why? Because 2.4 Wi-Fi is also used for Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, microwave ovens, and more. It has become so congested in most areas that unless you are sitting within a few feet of your access point your data rate is suffering because there are so many others on the same channel, or who are using channels that overlap the three main 2.4-GHz channels. Outdoors we can sometimes spot an access point on a lamp pole but cannot communicate with it because of all the interference in the immediate area. Most people don’t really notice the degradation of their Wi-Fi connection until it is very slow and then they seem to blame the slowness on the Internet (which might be the cause in some cases). But some housekeeping of your Wi-Fi space may be in order as well.

How many Wi-Fi devices do you have in the house or office? How many are connected to the same access point and how many are streaming video at the same time? All broadband spectrum from the Internet to the airwaves is shared spectrum and the more people using it in a small area, the more likely it is to slow down. When I check into a hotel and set up my computer or iPad, I am often amazed at how many other devices belonging to other guests I can see on the network, some of which are not encrypted and are therefore vulnerable.

Now we have LTE-U or LTE Unlicensed. We are told by several large network operators and by those making LTE-U devices, that LTE-U will live happily with Wi-Fi in the same spectrum. I have not seen any tests but RF congestion is RF congestion any way you look at it. The more devices within a given area, the more contention there will be and performance of each of them will be degraded. By the way, this type of congestion is not new, it is as old as radio itself. In the world of Public Safety when two people are trying to talk on the same radio channel at once, one of two things happens: Either neither one can be heard because they are interfering with each other, or the strongest signal wins. RF is RF, bandwidth is shared, it does not matter if it is a macro cell site with ten miles of coverage or a Wi-Fi access point with only 150 feet of coverage. If too many people are trying to use that one resource, especially when streaming video, the experience is worse for all of them.

I have written several articles about the fact that there are a number of people, some of whom work for the federal government, who believe the Internet is an unlimited resource and we can continue to load more and more video, data, and voice onto it and never run out of bandwidth. Wireless is viewed almost the same way except that the reality of slower speeds or no coverage has been experienced by everyone. It is true that we can build more Internet backbone, install more massive servers, and keep the Internet humming. It is also true that the vision of 5G wireless broadband is to distribute the demand over many more cells. They can be large (macro), or micro, pico, or femto, but the more cells available, the more bandwidth and the higher the speed—again, up to a point!

In order to have all these thousands or millions of cells surrounding us so we can have virtually unlimited bandwidth and speeds, we need fiber or some other high-capacity connection between each cell and the network. It is vitally important for those making decisions about the use of our very limited spectrum resources to understand the laws of physics, and that broadband is a shared world and we will not always have gigabit access regardless of where we are. I hope we can slow down a little and recalibrate consumers’ expectations because at some point those providing both the wired and wireless services will not be able meet their customers’ expectations.

Next Up

Many of you have read my latest White Paper, “Location, Location, Location,” that is available without charge on our website. It describes the new FCC wireless 9-1-1 location rules and provides an update on the various options for wireless network operators to meet these new requirements in the timeframes allotted. The bottom line is that there is no single location system that will meet all of the FCC requirements. Rather, network operators will have to mix and match technologies they consider to be the best to meet their needs and the new rules.

In the not-too-distant-future the new rules require not only horizontal location of a 9-1-1 caller to within 50 meters but the ability to locate a caller in the vertical plane as well, or on what floor of a building the call is originating to determine a dispatchable location. In dense urban areas the issue of three-dimensional location accuracy is most difficult because GPS systems are unreliable and inbuilding calls are likely to be made not only on commercial networks but also on Wi-Fi hotspots. I highlighted one company (NextNav) that has a solution for these issues in dense urban areas using a technology known as MBS, or Metropolitan Beacon System. This system works across all networks and is available to all commercial and other networks, and has now been included by the LTE standards body and the 3GPP in its own location standards, verifying that this is, indeed, a viable solution.


It is truly an interesting time for those of us in and touched by wireless. We used to have an expression and dub each year, “The year of …” for the year of the LAN, the year of text, the year of MMS and, of course, the year of Wi-Fi and the year of Broadband. But now there are so many new areas to explore that it becomes more and more difficult to keep up and to separate realities from “we think it can be done” statements.

The year 2016 will be an incredible year with the incentive auctions, the sharing of government and private spectrum, the continued move toward the Internet of Things, and the Internet on the person. By year’s end it is also possible we will have some other advances we had not foreseen. These are fun times but sometimes I worry that technology is replacing human interaction, which, after all, is how and why we developed the technologies in the first place!

Andrew M. Seybold

One Comment on “Déjà Vu Yet Again?”

  1. […] To my knowledge this has not been a real problem except Wi-Fi users notice over time that their access points don’t cover inside their homes as well as they used to and perhaps their data rates are slower. This is typical when you have so many radios in close […]

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