Friday, December 16, 2005

WiFi, the Quintuple Play, and Lafayette: The Biggest Story Barely Told

As we approach year's end I tend to get a little reflective. All the news media are starting to churn out year-in-review pieces that highlight the biggest stories of the year.

Being fairly contrarian, I tend to want to do an anti-big story. What story that should have been a big story but never got played that way? For my money the biggest not-a-story story of the year was the continued insistence by everyone from the Mayor, to the CIO, to the director of LUS that they really, really intend to build a wireless network in Lafayette.

As I look back over the months of blog posts I see that at least as far back as mid-October last year you see hints that people understood how inexpensive a wifi network would be as an addition to fiber. By January Joey Durel was telling the Independent in no uncertain terms that wireless was on his wish list for the next 12-18 months. The idea continues to surface every couple of months as officials drop little hints. Not long ago Durel complained that we'd have had a wireless network a year ago if it hadn't been for the obstructionism of BellSouth and Cox.

But even with all the national heat over wireless networks and municipal wireless networks, we've not gotten very excited about it here. Part of that has to be our fiber-based blasé. Fiber is what generates excitement here. We're right about that: fiber is more important and more interesting. But, hey, we're from down here--we can get excited about CRAWFISH, for Pete's sake. You'd think we could get excited about fiber and wireless.

Granted, fiber is what a community needs to control its own future. Local control of the last mile and having a viable competitor to the national monopolies is the first order of business for any community that wants to guide its own destiny. Granted, fiber's bandwidth puts to shame the bandwidth of wireless and, granted, its rock-solid connection to your home will always be more reliable than wireless can hope to be.

But wireless does have its virtues...

It especially has its virtues inside a fiber-based information economy.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that wireless' biggest virtue is that it is "mobile," meaning that you can connect from anywhere and that you're never out of touch. True, but more reflective thinkers recognize (and Jon Fitzgerald has been pounding this for years) that it is also location-based. In order to negotiate a signal, wireless systems have to know roughly where you are . . . and that knowledge can be used to make available local information. With a properly configured system, every wifi client could be its own little GPS locater, with the attendant potential for helping you find the nearest po-boy effortlessly . . . and of having sushi ads pushed at you (every silver cloud has its dark lining).

I've written a couple of times about the potential a wireless addition to fiber would open in making possible a "quintuple" play--adding wireless data and cell phone capacities to the current plans for fiber-based cable, phone, and big broadband. Back then it seemed a way to leapfrog the competition. Less than a year later, with BellSouth rumbling about cable "sometime soon" and Cox having developed a partnership with Sprint/Nextel, it is clear that adding wireless to the fiber play will be the competitive way to stay ahead of the pack.

Most folks don't talk about the voice capacities of wifi networks because it is hard, very hard, to provide the nodes of a wireless mesh network with enough bandwidth to reliably serve voice to any sizeable number of users. Additionally, every "jump" between wireless nodes as packets are shuttled back to the backbone adds hesitations, "latency" to the mix and voice begins to stutter and pause very noticeably.

All of that brings us back to the idea that wireless is especially fantastic inside a fiber-based information economy. Most ways of provisioning a wireless network with bandwidth involve setting up some sort of radio/microwave hookup back to a big broadband backbone and then using that to parcel out bandwidth to wireless "access points" which then further subdivide the available bandwidth by meshing together and dividing the bandwidth again. The packets of information coming to you have to be routed through several step-downs in available bandwidth. For most communities it is a good way to go but, more pointedly, it is the ONLY way for the community to provide bandwidth for itself. Unfortunately the constraints on providers, municipal and private, mean that you just plain don't have the bandwidth for much beyond email and light browsing.

Lafayette isn't in that situation. There is no need to go back to some big backbone through wireless jumps. There will be a huge chunk of fiber-based backbone running right down your street.

That is where all the really exciting stuff comes in.

A fiber-based wireless network could conceivably have NO jumps back to the backbone. It could be hung right off the backbone itself. It would not have to share bandwidth but could run at the full rated speed of the wireless equipment. (Something you seldom see. No wifi network in Lafayette outside, possibly, of directly fiber funded ones at ULL or LITE sees anything like the 54 megs of bandwidth that is speced out on the side of the box. Cox and BellSouth can't give you that much bandwidth, so your can't, for most practical purposes us the equipment at nearly that speed. We had one for a little while at our setup in the dome following Katrina/Rita. It was sweet. I liked it.)

With big, low-latency, bandwidth coming wirelessly off a fiber network vast new ranges of possibility arise. The first and most obvious is voice...voice over Internet Protocol, (VOIP) is practical, even easy. Just download Skype and go to it. Internet protocols don't care what the packets are. If you get 'em fast enough you can easily use 'em for voice--without special network equipment. That's where wifi/wimax enabled cell phones become a possibility. Just add the VOIP chipset and the chipset/radio needed for the radio bandwidth and your new "tri-band" or "quad band" cell phone is good to go...and as long as you stay in the city you can bypass those expensive cellular guys but still be able to hook in to them when you leave town. Seamlessly.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Funding the Wireless VOIP (WVOIP) dream are two necessities: big bandwidth and those Internet Protocols. The bandwidth makes new things possible and IP makes it simple to implement. Use your phone to wirelessly suck info from your home computer if you need it. Download the music parked on your online backup to your IPod via a nifty IPod add--do it from Mello Joy downtown--or the park. Reprogram your DVR from your laptop during the lunch break. Don't just send your friends camera the video of your son's turns at bat back to the mom who had to stay at work. If all that wireless is hung directly from the LUS network huge new possibilities like these emerge. Our wireless network could be qualitatively different from any in the country--much, much more advanced.

There are plenty of benefits for the city of Lafayette of having this all hung off LUS fiber and run by LUS. A wireless play there would both increase the take rate--more people would buy their package o services from LUS--and it would meant that the average subscriber would pay a little more as well. That means a system that more easily and quickly pays off its bond debt. That's certainly in the interests of every citizen. But beyond that...that "little" more that the citizen would pay really would be or at least could "little." What LUS will have to burn is bandwidth. It will cost them little to provide the bandwidth in-system. (Doubt that? Think again. How does Cingular afford those free in-system plans?) Such a system could provide wireless to wireless voice or data links between subscribers for just a small increment of the total bill. The cost of adding a wireless element to the fiber network would be, I believe, no more than 5% of the total investment. What percentage of your combined phone, internet, cable, and cell is your cell bill? More than 5%? I thought so. As a business decision it should be dead-easy for LUS. And the citizens it serves.

Speaking of those citizens: They'll be some that worry about the political hassles that might result from the city taking such a visionary step. They shouldn't. That battle, friends, has been fought and won. On July 16th. The people have asked for a strong, municipally-owned telecom network and winning over the citizens was the hard and essential battle. Giving them a good deal on yet another service or two is not going to distress them in the least. The opposition to our building our own system is already doing everything it can to stop us...and is failing. I doubt that there is anything they could try that they haven't already tried. LUS is CLEC. It is already licensed to provide phone service. The coast is clear. There's nothing to stop LUS from taking the wireless step but the approval of the city. The people gave their approval this summer.

You can see why I might think this the biggest story barely told. Lafayette would not only be the largest city in the country with a state-of-the-art fiber optic-based telecom system serving out big bandwidth that most could only envy. It would be in a position to serve the whole community with 1) big broadband wireless that is 2) completely integrated into and makes full use of the fiber optic grid the city owns. The combo of ubiquitous fiber and universal, big broadband wireless would be unique. And truly difficult for anyone, city or corporation, to match. Lafayette would be able to legitimately lay claim to being the most technologically advanced city in the country--and, as far as I can tell, the world.

That would be worth doing. Don't you think?

Maybe it will be next year's USA Today cover story.


GumboFilé said...

I was going to dispute you on this but I have to agree, you are contrarian ;p

but so am I

Merry Christmas


John said...

I do think we've found an area of common agreement and fellowship..

Happy Holidays! ;-)