Monday, October 03, 2005

Dreaming: The Quintuple Play and Lafayette

Dreaming dept.

Back in the day I talked a little about a pie in the sky dream that I called the Quintuple Play (1, 2)--the centerpiece of that idea was to add a local wireless cloud to LUS' fiber optic utility, a move which would allow both wireless data services and, crucially, IP-based voice--WiFi Cell Phones--to the triple play of wired data, cable, and voice services already contemplated by the Lafayette Utility System.

A year ago there were no large, or retail implementations of wireless VOIP (what little wireless VOIP there was was on the campuses of large technophilic corporations) and phones were expensive and essentially unavailable to the average Joe. What a difference twelve months makes. A recent pair of stories leads me to think that dream much more immediately available than I had thought. A story from a VON (Voice Over Network) conference says that a major direct-to-retail municipal implementation (explicitly understanding itself as using the utility model) of VOIP WiFi is about to roll out using the 103 square mile Rio Rancho, New Mexico WiFi cloud. They are ready to step out and add "cellular" voice services to its data offering. A separate story reviews second generation, affordable wifi phones. Taken together, it seems that what was recently a dream has become an immediate reality. And available to any community that wants to reach out and grasp the possibilities. [And yes, by that I mean Lafayette...more at the end of the piece.]

Municipal WiFi cloud adds VOIP; from the Rio Rancho story:
The folks who rolled out the nation’s first metropolitan-wide Wi-Fi network in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, are implementing VoIP over WiFi. They told an audience at the VON Fall 2005 conference in Boston that VoIP over Wi-Fi will be ready for prime time in other municipalities in the coming months...

“We think Wi-Fi Metro can do everything and be like an electricity utility,” said Tyler Van Houwelingen of Azulstar Networks, which is the Wi-Fi provider in Rio Rancho. “We can sell unlimited telephone and broadband service for under $40 and that’s the best in the business.”

Van Houwelingen, who is the founder and CEO of Azulstar, said VoIP functions well in fixed locations and reasonably well in mobile situations in which users are moving about the 103-square-mile Wi-Fi metro area. The Rio Rancho network plan calls for customers being able to use SIP phones when traveling at speeds up to 55 miles an hour...

Van Houwelingen said VoWi-Fi will be an important feature for usage in the eight metro Wi-Fi nets that Azulstar has been rolling out, because the technology will enable the service to compete with entrenched telephone companies.

He noted that the major telephone companies and cable providers are opposed to the widespread rollout of Wi-Fi. {emphases mine}
Mobile VOIP telephony challenges everyone. Phone and Cable wireline products and cellular companies alike will find it hard, very hard, to compete with a wireless IP-based voice solution. Think Lafayette's Referendum fight with Cingular and the other wireless carriers weighing in against LUS in addition to BellSouth and Cox. I hope Azulstar has some deep pocket investors because this is too good an idea to go under because it gets drowned by incumbent regulatory and legal harrassment.

IP on wireless networks; from a Networking Pipeline story:
With VoIP still gathering steam, a new flavor of VoIP may accelerate the move to Internet-based telephone service. VoIP over wireless network, or VoWLAN, could bring more compelling reasons for users to drop their current telephony service and switch to a true roaming VoIP solution. VoWLAN is simply a VoIP phone that can connect to the Internet via a corporate wireless network, a home or small office wireless network, or a public or private wireless hotspot...

Because the market is relatively new, there are limited VoWLAN telephones available. The current crop of VoIP Wi-Fi telephones share very similar feature sets, such as a basic phonebook, echo cancellation, and jitter buffer to ward off call breakup from network traffic.
Wireless IP phones don't need a lot of fancy features...they can, in theory and easily enough in practice, simply be another local wifi-connected network node. You ought to be upload your phonebook from your laptop and access all the network services available to your laptop from your phone. No need to cram 'em on the itty bitty phone if they are available on the network. Cool features aside, the real news is that the story goes on to give a short review of 5 commerically available Wireles IP phones, including 3 that are clearly aimed at residential markets. My guess is that the 103 miles of Rio Ranch's municipal wifi system are destined to become a big market for one of the these phones. Why? because its gonna be dirt cheap and ultra cool. And its not just folks in Lafayette who'd jump at a chance to abandon the incumbent monopolies in favor of an upstart local alternative that offers more for less.

The real upside is in the potential integration of these things and in the provision of the next several generations of services. Examples? Store your movies online and watch on your phone/PDA/laptop/remote thing-a-ma-bob (TAMB) or direct you movies to your friend's nice HDTV set. While sitting at a stoplight use your TAMB to direct your online DVR to record the evening news to see what is said about the accident you witnessed on Kaliste Saloom. Integration of all wireline networks based on IP/internet protocols is already in process. Wireless will be then next to be pulled in.

Having the barriers between networks fall will make great services available to the customers of companies that encourage integration over their networks. To have a direct motive to push integration you have to have two things: 1) a stake in all the services offered so that integration serves to solidify and extend your market reach and penetration and 2) bandwidth to burn; many of the most interesting new services require high bandwidth. A company which needs to ration bandwidth will be afraid to promote new services strongly for fear they will be used. (Think that unlikely? Think again. This is what explains Cox's noticeable lack of a push to sell its VOIP service. The Quality of Service (QoS) issue created by VOIP cause Cox to noticeably cut into the bandwidth available to its established internet customers or risk lousy voice service. It's been an issue in Lafayette already--without a huge promotion.)

Locally only LUS will have a large market share of customers in all the basic services, only LUS will have the bandwidth to fund real wireless capable of high speed video, only LUS will have the in-system bandwidth to support massive online storage and retrieval. (Presuming they make certain as yet unmade decisions in favor of offering such bandwidth.)

The quintuple play and all that would inevitably follow in terms of local opportunity to develop services using the potential for integration is within our reach. Let's think about it publicly.

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