Thursday, April 28, 2011

Whatever happened to the Wired City?

OMG, We're stuck with Comcast--Ten years ago, more than 200 municipalities in America dreamed of the Wired City where you could get broadband internet service anywhere, inthe libraries, schools, on a park bench, sitting in your car. Parking meters would be wired, as would police and ambulances and firetrucks. Ten years later very few municipal WiFi services exist. 

The Wired City was a dream and it would bring the internet to even those who could not afford it. Best of all, you didn’t have to deal with Verizon or Comcast, which alone would be reason to celebrate. And cities wouldn’t have to go through the expense of digging ditches or stringing cables to each building or home.

The dream ran into economics and politics. Mostly, however, it ran into a simple technologic problem. You can’t wire a city with WiFi. Wrong technology.

The dream was glorious, and cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and even technology savvy San Francisco, fell for it. Philly and several other cities even found a corporate ally, Earthlink, and hot spots were even begun. But two or three years later, the plans were abandoned. Earthlink ran like hell and the cities acknowledged it wasn’t going to work. By last March, when the Federal Communication Commission released Connecting American, the National Broadband Plan, WiFi was mentioned on only a few pages. We had moved on.

If you wanted WiFi, you probably needed to head to a Starbucks. You can do a building, an office, an airport, even a campus. You cannot do a city.

One of the first problems was predictable. The cable companies, especially Time-Warner and Comcast went berserk, complaining of unfair competition. They often had monopolies in cities and were not happy about having to give up any shadow of the space to someone who would operate as a non-profit. They lobbied states to ban municipality owned systems and succeeded in many. The battle now is still being battled in North Carolina.

But the technology was its own worse enemy.
  • What you send from a transmitter doesn’t always match what you get at the receiver. Free-space propagation means that a signal strength degrades inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two. Even if nothing interferes, the signal will degrade.
  • The interference in a city is massive. Every wall, car, piece of furniture, tree, window that comes between the transmitter and receiver will reflect, diffract and scatter the signal. So does every other radio signal.
  • WiFi is limited to two broadcast bands and they have to share the space with other electronic devices. Since none of these devices have to be licensed, anyone can turn one on and screw up a WiFi network.
  • The FCC limits power to 1 watt, not nearly powerful enough to overcome the obstacles.
  • The signal frequencies are too high. The lower the frequency the better a system’s ability to cope with interference.WiFi operates at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; FM radio, which can penetrate walls and cars, operates  between 30 MHz-300 MHz.
  • All the above means you have to have a lot of installations and someone has to install them, climbing on trees and poles, negotiating with landlords, drilling holes, running cables in interiors.
Actually, there are technologies that would work, including 3G and 4G telephony. That won’t help laptops equipped with WiFi or other computers, so that remedy is not terribly useful.
For now, the Wired City will have to be limited to specific areas. And some of us still have to tray to get a live human being at Comcast or Verizon.
“Your call is important to us. Now sit there and wait.”