Muni-Wi-Fi Again?Saturday, April 18, 2009
But the cable companies don't appear to want any part of what is being called muni-Wi-Fi 2.0. They really arent interested in using unlicensed spectrum for their services, especially since many of them won licensed spectrum in the AWS-1 and/or 700-MHz auction. But if you search on muni-Wi-Fi using your favorite search engine, you will see two sides of this issue. One group made up mostly of equipment vendors is saying that we learned from the failures of muni-Wi-Fi version 1.0 and can, therefore, make version 2.0 workprovided there is an anchor tenant or anchor application. Some anchor applications being touted are wireless meter reading, streaming video from many video cameras around a city, and some city governments.
You will also find articles claiming some of the failed muni-Wi-Fi systems have been fixed, pointing to Philadelphia as an example, telling us that most of the sign-ons for that system are from Apple customers. The city system is currently being run by a not-for-profit organization called Wireless Philadelphia and it is part of the citys effort to provide broadband via its digital inclusion project that is running a series of pilots in the city. There is no information on the site as to the number of subscribers on the network, and large numbers of one-time connections wont support these networks; they must have a large number of monthly customers to survive.
But for every claimed muni-Wi-Fi success written about, there are ten or more failures, and most organizations (with the exception of equipment vendors) have moved on to the next big thing which, we are assured, will be the use of unlicensed TV white space spectrum that is due to come online after the HDTV transition now scheduled for June 12, 2009. It is unclear whether there will be any equipment available for use on this spectrum anytime soon, if the concept of unlicensed white space use will end up in court, or even if it will work.
The devices are supposed to be smart, but the biggest problem for urban areas wont be the equipment or how smart it is. It will be whether any white space is available. The catch here is that making use of TV white space with higher-powered fixed base radios as opposed to nomadic lower-powered radios requires the spectrum of three consecutive TV channels, and then only the middle channel can be used for transmitting and receiving. Referring to the database created by Spectrum Bridge, and using 100 Broad Street in Philadelphia as the reference point (about the center of the city), you will find that channels 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, and 18 can be used for unlicensed systems, as well as channels 47, 48, 49, 50, and 51. The rest of the vacant channels are all next to existing TV stations, so Philadelphia could support systems only within the twelve channels listed in groups of three consecutive channels. However, if you look up San Francisco and subtract the white space already in use by police, fire, and two-way radio services, there are exactly zero groupings of three channels or more that could be used for these systems. Further, we still do not know exactly what the FCC rules will be or how smart the radios will have to be, and there is the issue of all of the wireless microphones that operate in this spectrum.
I have to wonder if muni-Wi-Fi 2.0 will reside on the existing 2.4-GHz spectrum that is already crowded with access points (that compete with muni system access points), or if it will end up on the TV white space channels. In any event, I still dont see an economic model for muni-Wi-Fi systems on either 2.4 GHz or TV white space spectrum. In both Philadelphia and San Francisco, as well as in most other urban areas, there are already six or more broadband service providers and in some of these areas, there is fiber to the home, which provides really fast broadband service.
When you strip away all of the spreadsheet numbers, and consider the fact that those who recognized late that wireless would be important are the ones pushing for muni-Wi-Fi, you will find the underlying reason that these systems are still being pushed by vendors, consultants, and various companies. There is a perception that even though we have six or more broadband choices in urban areas, we are being ripped off by the large telcos and cable companies and that more competition will lower broadband pricing and make it more affordable for everyone.
You will notice I chose to use the word perception. The fact is that the United States enjoys some of the lowest broadband and voice pricing in the world. Similar services in Europe and most of Asia cost more than double what we pay here. Even hotspot access, which costs nothing or only a few dollars here, costs $20-$30 for the same amount of time in London, Paris, and other European cities. Once again, the problem is with those who believe all things Internet-related should be free, yet in reality, Internet access is not free, it is access to most websites on the Internet that is free once the Internet service fee has been paid.
Those pushing for more unlicensed spectrum and more competition will continue to do so and market forces will determine the outcome and who survives. With muni-Wi-Fi version 1.0, it was not the muni-Wi-Fi operators that thrived and survived, it was those villainous telecos and cable companies that are overcharging us for services. I predict that muni-Wi-Fi 2.0 will go the way of muni-Wi-Fi 1.0, if it even has a chance to develop in todays economy. I also predict that over time, TV white space spectrum companies that are painting bright and financially rewarding pictures for their investors will also stumble and fall, leaving TV white space to be used by those who want to communicate with their neighbor down the street for interactive games or video sharing.
Most spectrum costs money because it is licensed and thus relatively immune to interference, and because systems built on this spectrum are managed by the companies that build the networks. Management of broadband data services will become important not only in the wireless world, but in the wired world as well. Muni-Wi-Fi 2.0 is on its way. I wonder if anyone other than the equipment vendors really care.
Andrew M. Seybold