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Metro Wi-Fi: Shooting the Messenger?

Within hours of the NMRC report's release, articles appeared in a number
of online publications questioning the motives of NMRC analysts and
insinuating that they were hired guns for entrenched telecomm companies.
I have no issue with journalists pursuing connections between NMRC and
corporate interests, and I'm not naive enough to believe that the report
is entirely independent despite assertions from NMRC that none of the
analysts was paid for their work. Much of it is advocacy by
conservative, anti-government policy wonks. But beyond the cries of
conspiracy lies some wisdom about technology, market competition and
politics. Read the report for yourself and decide.

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The NMRC report is actually a series of papers written by six
individuals with affiliations ranging from universities to think tanks
to policy institutes. Each author has his own unique take on the issue,
but there are some recurring themes. The basic argument against metro
Wi-Fi deployments boils down to three major points. First, these
initiatives are viewed as inappropriate expenditures of public funds
that are likely to result in higher than expected ongoing operational
costs. Second, the report asserts that such efforts are both
anti-competitive and will have a chilling effect on private efforts to
expand broadband services. Finally, the authors maintain that the goals
espoused for these projects, which range from economic development to
delivery of broadband to underserved populations, are unlikely to be

Interestingly, the report only briefly touches on the immense technical
obstacles associated with delivering broadband Wi-Fi services across a
metropolitan area, especially in the 2.4-GHz band. Wi-Fi is a LAN
technology that is well suited for many applications, ranging from home
networking to enterprise LAN services to public hotspots. But using it
for broadband wireless WAN services has always struck this pundit as ill
advised. That's one of the key reasons 802.16 is viewed by many as a
more strategic metropolitan wireless technology.

The appeal of metro Wi-Fi is based in large part on naive assumptions
regarding cost of deployment and ongoing support. In a world of $10
wireless NICs and $50 SOHO wireless routers, that's understandable.
However, enterprise IT professionals who have deployed large-scale Wi-Fi
networks have long understood that much higher build-out costs are
required to deliver secure, reliable and scalable services. Building out
metro-area Wi-Fi networks that deliver per-user throughput in excess of
one megabit per second would likely require the deployment of thousands
or tens of thousands of access points. And while mesh technologies that
often form the foundation of many build-out plans offer significant
long-term potential, they are both expensive and immature, and the
per-hop performance hit makes deployment extremely challenging.

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