Thursday, August 30, 2007

More on Lafayette's WIFi "Feature"

Blogging over at TheIND, Nathan Stubbs has announced Huval's "announcement" of a WiFi "feature" for Lafayette's fiber-optic network. As we covered here Huval's mention of wifi at Tuesday night's council meeting was pretty casual: he was responding to a question from Mouton touching on digital divide questions and worked the mention of wifi as a "useful addition" to the fiber-optic network for consumers. He also allowed that it might be useful as a lower-priced addition for some users.

Huval tells Stubbs that "marketing" is still to be worked out. Indeed—My guess is that LUS is adverse to marketing wifi as an alternative to its central, costly, vastly more capable network. His remarks are directed toward positioning wifi as an addition, a feature, of LUS' retail network. It is, Huval says, "a convenience." for customers. As such it would be offered at a minimal additional cost for users and postioned as an enticement to join the network. (And, not incidently, to block any attempt to outflank LUS by the incumbents.)

None of this is as a new as it might seem (I called it "the biggest story barely told" back in 05). As far back as October of 04 Lafayette official were talking about building a wifi network—"also." Hopefully this time it will penetrate the consciousness of the public and the reporters that inform them: we are going to get wifi too. This is going to be bells and whistles, gold-plated, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink public network. (That's not only a promise; it's also a threat: now we have to find good ways to use all that capacity.—Didn't you always feel just a little threatened when you got a good, really useful gift?)

The newest thing in the blogpost is the way in which the wifi network is made subordinate to the fiber network. Huval has told Stubbs that it just isn't up to snuff as reliable network alternative:
Huval says that the difficulties associated with wireless almost always result in spotty coverage for city networks. Walls and even moist vegetation can block signals. “To sell a service for wireless without having some degree of assurance that customers can really enjoy, that is not something that at this point we would want to do,” Huval says.
I think he is right about that.
He adds that LUS’ city wifi will be more of a hotspot versus a mesh network. While there won’t be blanket coverage, the network – tied directly to fiber – will provide up to 1 megabyte download speeds in certain areas.
I'd take that hotspot metaphor with a grain of marketing salt. In order to serve his own people and the police and other public servants reliably the network will have to blanket the city and cover every street eventually. The economies that come from the investment in wifi for the city won't be there if that doesn't happen. The city will want to be able to cut itself loose from its expensive cellular and data connections and supply those services for itself at a considerable savings. And it will as soon as the system is up and running reliably.

What probably is true is that they know they don't want to mess with trying to push the wifi signal into houses or through a lot of vegetation away from the street. That's been the downfall of most city-wide wireless networks. What LUS is willing to commit to up front is wifi in public spaces, especially around the downtown core and they won't say it is "officially" available unless they are confident they can offer the gold-plated experience of about a meg of connectivity. That way nobody will get the impression LUS is offering a "junky" service. I'd hope they'd leave the rest of the network open but not officially supported —a sort of "no promises outside our approved zones" sort of approach. That would mean that you'd be able to connect pretty reliably on the streets, as reliably as the police and the LUS workers find necessary. That might not be the 1 meg of the official zones but considerably less bandwidht would be usable for email and light browsing on the front porch. If you want to download a movie quickly you go indoors and use your "real" fiber connection. Not too shabby.

A handle on the digital divide angle might be got by keeping the "add-on" price very low, say a 5 dollars addition, to ANY LUS bill (including water and electricity at the most extreme.) That'd make really, really cheap connectivity available easily to anyone in the city whose current economic straits didn't leave them homeless.

Should be interesting to watch all this marketing mature.

The trial network is up and in testing stage right now according to Stubb's interesting post. That, you will recall, was to be built based on a wireless RFP issued early this year. That RFP called for a limited number of test points to be built out, presumably along the route of the already-existing fiber ring. Anybody seen any of these Tropos access points in the wild?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between the wireless connectivity you get with say cingular and etc and wifi? I now get pretty good wireless for my laptop thru cingular on my aircard. I get great connectivity anywhere in town and most of country. Why would that type no make sense for LUS to offer for Laf. Would it make sense?

John said...

Hi Anonymous,

The difference between the wireless from Cingular (now AT&T) and WiFi is that AT&T has spectrum that it "owns" and uses for this purpose. It's pretty good spectrum but it is expensive and slow compared to WiFi.

WiFi's spectrum is open--not owned in the usual sense--so overuse is a danger and the FCC has mandated that the power be low, and thus range short, so that interference is less likely. (There are fairly decent technical fixes for interference—"smart radio"—but the FCC isn't listening.) It's also poor spectrum in that it is relatively easily blocked by water (which is why it is not allocated and owned).

LUS can't do do cellular because they don't own the infrastructure, or the spectrum. We don't want them to because it would be expensive and slow.

Wifi, for all its disadvantages is fast (when the bandwidth is driven by fiber) and cheap--so cheap that LUS can almost give it away as a loss leader.

It makes for a great mobile data connectivity network--much better for that than the cellular companies.(People love their coffee shop hotspots. I spent this afternoon in a meeting at one.) Phones already exist that could treat wifi as a "band" and let you switch between using wifi and regular cellular. That is what we should be asking for--LUS should reach an agreement with Sprint or T-Mobile, offer no extra cost WiFi connectivity with its VOIP or internet packages and do roaming on one of the national networks if you buy one of these phones. So all your in-city calls would be no extra cost if you'd already paid for your data connection.

I, for one, would sign on in a flash.