16 Jul City Wi-Fi challenges are no surprise to broadband executives
Milwaukee, Wis. – For the past few years, Wisconsin cities have pursued wireless Internet service with a mixture of optimism and frustration, but the latter emotion has ruled the day of late.
The hiccups that cities like Milwaukee and Madison have experienced have not dissuaded either from pursuing “Wi-Fi,” or wireless fidelity, and perhaps meet the demands of residents who would like to turn on their laptops or personal digital assistants and get connected from their back yard or their front porch.
Part of the lure is the assertion by companies like Midwest Fiber Networks, which has been selected to build and maintain the Milwaukee wireless network, that they could build the system without taxpayer support. This contractual role reversal does not require public financing and had municipal officials salivating at the prospect of low-cost economic development.
Under this model, Midwest Fiber would pay the city for the right to lease space on public property for the installation of the hardware, and lease bandwidth to Internet service providers who would then charge users a monthly access fee. About 60 public Internet sites would be available free to the public, and the monthly fee would apply to the remainder of the Internet.
So far, however, the smart money is still with the Wi-Fi doubters.
It has taken longer than expected for Midwest Fiber to meet key benchmarks. The wireless demonstration area, where Midwest Fiber has mounted antennas on about 100 street lights and utility poles, was to go on line in January but was completed only recently. Now the company says it will take longer than 18-month original timetable of March 2008 to connect the entire city, a statement that doesn’t sit well with impatient Milwaukee aldermen who already are unhappy with delays in the $20 million project.
Madison Wi-Fi was supposed to take the Capitol Square and the downtown area by storm, but Wi-Fi’s inability to completely penetrate houses, businesses, and apartment buildings, has brought a number of complaints.
Mad City Broadband, the city’s wireless Internet network, recently was purchased for an undisclosed price. The new owner, Louis Kek, former CIO of Cellnet, has vowed to address those issues and expand the network beyond the existing coverage area.
In Waukesha, the city hired Colorado-based RITE Brain Consulting to develop its citywide Wi-Fi network, and the company is in the final stages of evaluating the technology. RITE Brain, which is testing the system with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, is to determine by Sept. 4 whether it will proceed with the project.
Bret Mantey, director of information technology for the City of Waukesha, said testing thus far indicates that Wi-Fi provides the coverage the city expected, but offers disappointing throughput, which refers to the amount of data transferred from point to point.
Plan B would be to seek another vendor, Mantey said, because the city has no interest in absorbing the cost of building and maintaining a Wi-Fi network.
Can Wi-Fi deliver?
For an outsider’s perspective, WTN spoke to two executives working with Wisconsin consumers and communities to improve broadband service. One is admittedly a wireless fan and would like to see Wi-Fi develop into a competitive alternative to cable. The other owns a technology services company that employs Wi-Max, a next-generation wireless alternative, to build wireless broadband networks.
Both have doubts that Wi-Fi can deliver on its promises.
Albert Chiozzi, president of the Madison-based Broadband Infrastructures, would like wireless to emerge as a reliable competitor with cable service, but his start-up business was launched to reach consumers whose wireless Internet or broadband service leaves something to be desired.
Chiozzi regards Wi-Fi as a “very localized,” access-point oriented technology, and one where height matters. He noted that homes typically are about 40 feet high, and most wireless antennas are attached to utility poles about 15 or 20 feet off the ground.
“Technologists will claim that doesn’t matter, that we don’t need line of sight, but that’s not exactly true,” said Chiozzi, whose career background includes work with cable and wireless. “If you have a house in between you and the access point, you aren’t getting coverage.”
For improved service, consumers might need to invest in devices that amplify the signal, he said.
Another challenge is the limited number of overlapping channels in the frequency range for Wi-Fi, which operates on the so-called “junk spectrum” that is unlicensed by the Federal Communications Commission. In the United States and Canada, there are 11 channels available for use in this range, but there are only three non-overlapping channels. If Wi-Fi access points are located near each other, the non-overlapping channels must be used to minimize interference from the antennas alone. That doesn’t factor in what the use of a ham radio or a portable phone could do to a neighbor’s signal.
“Wireless as a local, an extremely local technology, is great,” Chiozzi said. “As a distribution technology for a complete city, it’s still unproven due to the inconsistency of the connection.”
Chiozzi said even the University of Wisconsin-Madison uses a combination of wireless and wired technology because the university recognizes that it can’t cover its campus with wireless alone.
It’s the combination of wired broadband and next-generation wireless that Keefe John finds more effective. John, owner of Techware, a Germantown technology services company, believes Wi-Fi was designed for the inside of buildings – which is the case in more than 830 Wisconsin Wi-Fi locations in businesses and public buildings – or for short distances outside.
“Wi-Fi is getting passed by,” John said. “It’s designed to be indoors, not have a lot of outdoor access points with interference in each direction.”
Techware is working with municipalities in metropolitan Milwaukee to build wireless broadband networks, many of which are not served by broadband connectivity. The company places its antennas on tall, municipal-owned structures like water towers, and works with private concerns to install equipment on tall buildings or cellular phone tower sites.
Techware uses a combination of broadband and point-to-point Wi-Max standards. Consumers need a special receiver to reach the signals from a laptop, but they have faster connections with less interference. Wi-Max may be more expensive per access point, but fewer of them are required.
Since one Wi-Fi antenna covers only a few hundred feet of wireless “hotspot,” municipal Wi-Fi networks will require connecting hundreds of hotspots together. For the Milwaukee project, Midwest Fiber plans to install roughly 2,500 antennas citywide, but John believes it’s cost prohibitive to have so many access points.
The RITE business model?
Waukesha’s Mantey, noting that RITE Brain Consulting is in the process of figuring out whether it can build the citywide system and make money, said part of the trick is finding the right business model.
He said the only successful citywide wireless networks have been built in areas where there is no real competition between landline and wireless providers. In Waukesha, RITE Brain will have to contend with the likes of AT&T, Sprint, and Horizon, and it may have to offer value-added services in order to compete.
“RITE Brain has research that shows people won’t switch on price only,” Mantey said. “It has to provide a better product, which means it may have to combine services like virus protection and wireless.”
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