Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Boosting Lafayette's WiFi

Worth Thinking About Dept.

Executive Summary: Wireless provider FON's recent successes provide an intriguing example for those interested in LUS' still-unformed wi-fi network.

Recently BT (Britain's dominant broadband provider) and Time-Warner cut deals with the Spanish wireless outfit FON. FON's goal is to foster wi-fi bandwidth sharing among its membership, "foneros." These recent deals are considered breakthroughs because they explicitly encourage users to share their bandwidth, something that network companies have previously forbidden.

The FON Idea:
Any foneros that freely shares their access can get on to any FON access point in the world for free. The company's ground-up, user-built approach to building a hotspot network contrasts pretty dramatically with the top-down methods by major wireless and phone service providers who build, maintain and charge a healthy fee to access their hotspot network.

Credibility:
While the FON plan sounded impractical to some it gained a prestigous group of backers even before the major partnership announcements in Europe, Britian, and the US; investors include: Google, Skype, Index Ventures, and Sequoia Capital. The latest round of investment brought in major Japanese players and BT invested in the company as part of its deal.

The deals cut with network providers BT (#1 in Britain), Neuf (#2 in France) and Time-Warner (#2 cable internet provider in the US) provide instant credibility for FON's idea. All those networks' members (Time-Warner has 6.6 million users) are now "foneros" and wi-fi routers supplied by the company have been flashed with Fon's software. Future broadband subscribers will be encouraged to buy FON routers and share their connections. In Britain, as a result of BT's dominant position and high adoption rates, speculation holds that dense urban areas will be nearly completely covered by the FON/BT network.

How it Works:
The new FON member attaches the FON-enabled wi-fi access point to the wired network connection they've paid for. FON wi-fi access points are cheap (occasionally free) and are software-configured to provide a public channel and a private, seperately encrypted, channel. The owner of the access point uses the private channel for their own, interior, at-home wi-fi network. The public channel's bandwidth is controlled by the owner; who limits the bandwidth that is shared with fellow foneros to a portion that doesn't degrade his or her experience. (Note: there is an alternative make some money off your access if a non-fonero member decides to pay for access through your node.)

Win-Win-Win:
The users get free wi-fi access across the world in exchange for giving up a little bandwidth that they feel they don't need. FON makes deals with the big providers. The big network providers get instant, user paid-for and user-maintained wi-fi networks to brag on and sell to consumers.

There are advantages besides the obvious laptop uses you see at any coffee house in the city. Having a widely-available wi-fi network means that users of wi-fi enabled phones and devices (think certain PDAs, Nokia phones, and the iPhone) could effectively make phone calls for free from FON hotspots in addition to surfing the web, using email, and working other data-based interactions over the net. There would be no additional connection cost over what they'd already paid for their home network for the connections made away from home.

Whoa! But there ARE problems:
But eager investors and growing user-base based on huge, established ISPs does not mean that all is rosy in Fonero Land. FON is faced with a perverse inverted reflection of the problems of wi-fi based muni broadband efforts.

I've discussed the problems of muni wi-fi at some length on these pages. Some of it boils down to the fact that mesh-based muni networks find it hard to provide adequate backhaul unless they have a dense fiber network to hang it off. (We've got that one licked here in Lafayette.) But the second part of the problem is that the constraints placed on wi-fi restrict it to low power and its spectrum allocation is such that wi-fi signals find it hard to penetrate dense vegetation and, especially, houses. Most people compute indoors. A public wi-fi network that has a hard time reliably getting inside homes and that makes for a very hard sell as a primary network. (LUS has tentatively solved this by selling fiber as the primary interior connection and making city-wide wi-fi an appropriately cheap add-on that will not be sold as suitable for in-home use.)

If muni wi-fi's acess-point-on-a-street-pole can't get in to homes, by the same token FON's bottom-up in-home network is going to find it hard to get out to the public areas of the neighborhood.

What's needed is a wireless system with the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither...

You see it coming, right?
LUS should either partner up with FON or do something similar themselves. (FON's software is not unique; other, open source software could emulate the basic capacities of the FON wi-fi router.)

LUS will be in a nearly unique position: it will have a FTTH network and a wireless one. The question, as always, is: How to best make use of the unique resources we are building in Lafayette. So far, in my humble opinion, LUS has mostly been making the smart moves. Fiber First is smart--the smartest basic move possible. That makes a strong wireless network possible. Given that starting point, it is smart to go ahead and build wireless mobile capacity as LUS is planning to do. It's smart to not pretend that wi-fi can be an adequate substitute for a reliable, wired network. LUS isn't doing that; instead LUS' wi-fi will be positioned, as it should be, as a low-cost mobility addition. What is ironic is that Lafayette's wireless network, while relegated to secondary status locally, will be faster and more reliable than any public wi-fi network in the nation; its dense fiber connectivity and the design decision to avoid more than rudimentary use of mesh re-routing assures that.

But, as smart as all that is, LUS' muscular wi-fi network will still have trouble getting into the home. Coverage will still be spotty and shifting--like cell phone coverage is, only more so. All that is a matter of physics and federal regulation — no amount of smart network design can completely eliminate the issue.

The smart way to minimize coverage problems is to provide both the muni solution for outside, public space and a FON-style solution for interiors. And because LUS will control both sides we can do what nobody else can: integrate the two. LUS would provide coverage on the streets and in public spaces. Subscribers, using FON equipment or similar router software cover their own interiors and their yard away from the street to exactly the degree they find useful for their own private, locked-down wi-fi channel. Piggybacked onto that would be a second, public, channel that would be available to all LUS subscribers. It'd be used by meter readers, police, friends, and folks visiting town who've bought the the three-day pass—and Foneros if we go that route. (If we join FON local subscribers could roam on FON points anywhere.) As long as you were visiting locales that used LUS fiber you'd never have to log into a private network. As a mobile user moved down streets, into offices, and visited friends they could, potentially, remain on the public network the entire time and never have to log into anyone's private network or use any resources that weren't public.

Near-ubiquity of coverage would allow VOIP phones could become truly useful in the city, making truly mobile wi-fi telephony a reality. WiFi-enabled handhelds, from iPhones, to Blackberries, to Nokia phones, to Skype phones, to various "smart" PDA hybrids would become reliably useful without having to buy into expensive packages from cellular providers, enabling a whole new class of network devices to become cheaply available to everyday Lafayette users.

The Bottom Line:
LUS could sweeten the pot for its subscribers by providing each broadband customers that agrees to share using the LUS-approved equipment and software with an extra meg of "langiappe" bandwidth so that sharing actually provides a small boost in capacity for the subscriber who bought their own router and occasionally shared their extra capacity. Recall also that LUS will (again almost uniquely) be providing every user unthrottled in-system bandwidth. Wi-fi routed packets that stayed inside our system would be under that local use umbrella. The relatively small bandwidth diverted to wifi sharing will be a mere drop in the bucket for the LUS user in that instance.

Lafayette's resulting wi-fi service would be as nearly flawless as is humanly possible both inside and outside. Segregating public and private networks would increase the security of the subscribers' personal networks; making wifi networks more secure for regular users than they are today. Subscribers would understand that coverage inside their homes was their responsibility while at the same time gaining access to the public network everywhere. As users found holes in coverage in places where they needed it they could simply move their wi-fi point or add a cheap repeater.

The net effect for LUS would be that the users would plug many of the holes in the city's cloud themselves--at their own expense--when they felt they needed coverage and only when they did. The resulting network with public channels available both inside and outside participants' buildings would be more dynamic and more nearly ubiquitous than any in the country. And ubiquity is the major selling point of any wireless mobility network.

The net effect for users would be a robust public network that was available both inside and outside wherever the people that lived or worked there thought it would be useful. That's simply unavailable anywhere else. A user's laptop would be more useful than ever. And mobile devices of all kinds would bloom in Lafayette as the price premium for service vanished.

It would be a very profitable collaboration between the community's telecom utility and its citizen-owners; a collaboration available to almost no one else.

Worth thinking about, don't you think?


(And a thanks to reader Jon who first pointed me at the BT story....)

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