Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Philly's WiFi Cloud and the Quintuple Play

Ricky over at Timshel passed me the AP story "Philly Considers Wireless Internet for All", it caught my imagination and I guest blogged on it over there. I used to live up in Delaware (don't ask) and Philly was the "big city." It had a tradition of masking and a strangely vibrant local politics that made a homesick Louisiana boy think wistfully of New Orleans. Mayor Street, a street fighter who didn't bother to project a sophisticated air when fighting for his city also has a whiff of those old-time, mildly corrupt southern politicians about him. Long story short: I've got a soft spot for Philly.

So I was interested in Philly's attempt to get cheap wireless broadband access for all. For most of the country the next hot thing is not our local passion, "fiber" but is instead "wireless." Their hope for cheap, communal connectivity lies in clouds of WiFi hotspots tied through "mesh networks" into the internet. Its a nice vision, if not nearly so grand as our own, (they have to settle for current services while we can dream grandly of possible futures) and I wish them the best with it. Apparently, if backtalk on the net is any indication, they'll need luck: both Verizion and Comcast, their local duopoly incumbents, are widely predicted to oppose it.

But a tidbit from the story touched off a little fantasy I though I'd share.

The tidbit:
One part of the 15-year deal is cheap Wi-Fi phones for neighborhoods where less than 95 percent of residents have home phones. IDT, which has agreed to market the cheaper phone service in those neighborhoods, would pay lower rates for poles there than other companies would in wealthier areas.
Sounds righteous, right? It is. But aside from simple justice there is a little secret being revealed in that innocent line. The city is going for a double play: wireless internet and wireless phone service. Whoever wins the phone contract to use the new wireless network will have a major leg up in the Philly metro area quite aside from having to give a little discount in the poorer areas that are Street's stomping grounds. (Alert: this is where my "mildly corrupt Southern politician"-trained instincts are activated. I smell a little something here but will leave worrying about that to friends in Philly.)

Still a double play is even more fun that the nice fantasy of a cheap WiFi cloud over Philly.

' Course it doesn't hold a candle to our own "Triple Play." The talk in Lafayette has been about the fabled "Triple Play" the grail of recent telecom quests. Providing fixed phone, cable TV, and Internet is supposed to be the key to market dominance. Everyone in the game is struggling to achieve the necessary bandwidth—the quickest way to dismissed by financial analysts as dead in the water is for it to be obvious that you don't have a viable business plan to get there. (Example)

No, Philly's plan doesn't hold a candle to our own triple play. But what makes it interesting is that it leads you to realize how easy it would be to turn a triple play in Lafayette in a quintuple play by adopting Philly's plan. Imagine: superfast internet in the home, a WiFi blanket that covers the city with more speed than you can currently buy from the incumbents for home use, a phone in the home that has the same number as the one that you carry out to the mall, and gobs of digital HD TV. All for one low, low utility price.

It could happen; neither startup cost nor technology would be much, if any, barrier.

The incremental costs of adding a WiFi net to the fiber net would be small. (Or maybe WiMax if it actually matures.) Five percent of the fiber? I haven't done the numbers but I'd bet no more and probably less. The costs of adding voice (VOIP) to that would be nil. All that needs is software which is already available—some of it is already there in free form (recall Mike's recent blog on Skype, the free VOIP program that allows you to call into the local phone systems anywhere in the world for pennies). The monster bandwidth of fiber makes the additional cost of bandwith barely visible. Ok, there'd be some significant maintenance on all those little WiFi transmitters. So?

Possibilities roll pretty fast outta that imagined cloud: why couldn't "push to talk" WiFi phone a la Nextel be free for "in network" users? Shoot, partner with Nextel or one of the others and make that a part of a contract that would probably net the cell carrier 75% or more of the local mobile market.

It's not just new toys. Its the possiblity of integrating all these toys through a ubiquitous, cheap, high bandwidth network. Use your cell phone to address your settop box and order it to record that new show your friends are talking about at work. Or do it from your laptop, though the phone is cooler. Video phones? Sure. Video cell phones? Probably, at least on the WiFi to WiFi calls.

I could go on. But the message is simple: if LUS wants to kick the excitement up another notch: BAM!, they could do it. And having pissed off Cox and BellSouth what would it harm things to add Sprint and Cingular?

And wouldn't that be a grand way to blindside whatever new program of disinformation the incumbents have planned for when you announce the full business plan?

It's all just a fantasy....Yeah, I know it's unlikely. But a man can dream. The Quintuple Play. And the CityCell phone (registered trademark) :-)
PS: Dreams of converged networks don't exist in just this fevered blogger's imagination. The Koreans (who are waayyyy ahead of the US in broadband penetration) are dreaming of converged wired and wireless networks. But they need a final, essential piece according to a Korea Herald article. Can you guess? Sure you can: Fiber optics to the home. Read the story and have your illusions of American broadband dominance smashed.

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