Metro Wi-Fi: Shooting the Messenger?

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.

February 18, 2005

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

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The NMRC report is actually a series of papers written by sixindividuals with affiliations ranging from universities to think tanksto policy institutes. Each author has his own unique take on the issue,but there are some recurring themes. The basic argument against metroWi-Fi deployments boils down to three major points. First, theseinitiatives are viewed as inappropriate expenditures of public fundsthat are likely to result in higher than expected ongoing operationalcosts. Second, the report asserts that such efforts are bothanti-competitive and will have a chilling effect on private efforts toexpand broadband services. Finally, the authors maintain that the goalsespoused for these projects, which range from economic development todelivery of broadband to underserved populations, are unlikely to befulfilled.

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

The appeal of metro Wi-Fi is based in large part on naive assumptionsregarding cost of deployment and ongoing support. In a world of $10wireless NICs and $50 SOHO wireless routers, that's understandable.However, enterprise IT professionals who have deployed large-scale Wi-Finetworks have long understood that much higher build-out costs arerequired to deliver secure, reliable and scalable services. Building outmetro-area Wi-Fi networks that deliver per-user throughput in excess ofone megabit per second would likely require the deployment of thousandsor tens of thousands of access points. And while mesh technologies thatoften form the foundation of many build-out plans offer significantlong-term potential, they are both expensive and immature, and theper-hop performance hit makes deployment extremely challenging.There's little question that widespread public deployment of Wi-Fi woulddiscourage private investment, except perhaps in the not-so-unlikelysituations where the public initiatives are unmitigated disasters thatno sane person would pay to use. My political views, formed in largepart by graduate study in Political Science, are well left of center.But when it comes to broadband wireless services, I don't have anyreservation in advocating a public policy stance that focuses on privatedelivery of services. The technical and market risks, especially at thisstage of the technology's evolution, are far too high to be born bytaxpayers. I'm not advocating strict laissez faire policies.Policymakers need to provide incentives--either economic orregulatory--to ensure that service providers deliver broad coverage. Butthe major risks associated with building these networks should be bornby shareholders, not taxpayers.

Finally, there is the nagging question of benefits, which have alwaysbeen difficult to quantify when it comes to wireless data services. Yes,Philadelphia and the other metropolitan areas attempting to revitalizetheir economic base for the 21st century may realize some short-termpositive buzz from these initiatives. But when the true costs areexposed and weighed against the benefits, it's unlikely to turn outpositive. Rapid advancements in technology, coupled with sound publicpolicy may lead to commoditized broadband wireless services by the endof this decade. Local governments can't gain competitive advantage basedon commodity service offerings. And with respect to bridging the digitaldivide, proposals to deliver wireless broadband to underserved areas maybe based on pure motives, but they don't address the fundamentalinformation literacy issues that are the root of the problem. Let'sspend taxpayer dollars on that.

While advocates and dissenters are emotional in stating their position,there is some room in the center. Local governments can play aconstructive role in fostering experimentation with these technologies.That's just what is happening in a number of cities. Wireless hotspotsare being deployed in public libraries in Chicago, in public parks inNew York City and in marinas in a number of coastal communities. Theseinitiatives will teach us a lot about what the technology can and cannotdo. Let's learn from those experiences before chasing afterover-ambitious and ill-conceived Wi-Fi Everywhere initiatives.

View the NMRC's Web site.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]1022

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