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The September 15, 2004 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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The New "Broadband Cities"

Earlier this month, a news item from Philadelphia received lots of attention in the US. That city's ambitious plan to make wireless broadband access available over all its 135 square miles has made lots of people sit up and take notice. While some smaller cities have moved in this direction, this is the first time that a major US city has announced plans for city-wide wireless broadband.

Wi-Fi in Zamora --> Click for larger pictureOver the past two years, we've written from time to time about cities that have made broadband access ubiquitous -- or at least available over large swaths of their geography -- by deploying some form of wireless broadband. Last year, in "Broadband Anywhere: The Extended Broadband Home" we summarized many of the technologies--Wi-Fi, WiMAX, 3G and a variety of proprietary approaches--being used to provide broadband services in cities. In separate articles before that, we mentioned a number of locations offering area- or city-wide broadband access, using a variety of technologies:

In more recent news,

  • Clearwire relaunched last month using NextNet Wireless technology after Craig McCaw bought both Clearwire and NextNet.
  • Nextel is running a large-scale trial in Raleigh-Durham using technology from Flarion.
  • Unwired launched in Sydney using technology from Navini.
  • WiMAX is making progress, and many "pre-WiMAX" systems have received much recent attention.
  • 3G mobile systems, although slow to start, have now been deployed to over 118 million subscribers worldwide and deployment is accelerating in North America.

The market opportunity for city-wide or what might be termed "medium range broadband networks" is the focus of "The Portable Internet", a newly published report and presentation from the ITU. Released at the Telecom Asia show in Korea, the report focuses on the "market opportunity situated between the high speeds of fixed line broadband and the high mobility of 3G."


Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with City Hall in the distance --> Click for larger pictureIn Philadelphia, the likely path involves placing thousands of small Wi-Fi transmitters around the city atop lampposts. The system would leverage Wi-Fi's popularity and use a wireless mesh technology. Such a technology, from Tropos Networks, is already deployed in Philadelphia's Love Park, Reading Terminal Market and anywhere on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The city has a Web site showing the current limited deployment. The cost of the first-phase rollout has been estimated at $10 million with annual maintenance charges of about $1.5 million. We have not seen details of the financial arrangements for supporting the network, but have read that plans call for a mix of public and private funds.

What is different about this deployment is that its impetus comes from the city government as opposed to coming from a commercial company, such as Clearwire, seeing a market opportunity. The driving force for the project, according to Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's Chief Information Officer, is to make broadband available to everyone in Philadelphia for a very low price. The thrust is that all residents, including those with low incomes, should be included.

Advocacy groups for community (free) networks have existed in many locations around the world. Generally, however, they are Wi-Fi "clouds" that cover limited districts, rather than a city which is 135 square miles. Those who have "for pay" services in the city, such as Verizon, are not enthusiastic about this model of "broadband for free" just like roads and other city infrastructure--Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe was quoted in Investor's Business Daily as saying: "No one should have to give up trash collection or police patrols for free broadband."

There is clearly a broader issue than one city or municipality here. On the one hand, cities want to serve their residents well, especially those with lower incomes. In rural areas, the argument is often that there is no service or the prices are unaffordable, and having broadband access can make or break a town's development. On the other hand, companies that have invested a great deal of money and effort to provide communications services understandably think it is unfair for ventures sponsored by public money to come in and compete with them. This issue has been playing out in the US and many other countries and is far from settled in many geographies.

Although public policy questions are complicated, technology solutions are more straight-forward. Many technologies can be used to provide city-wide broadband networks. Each has some advantages and disadvantages, which must be evaluated against the particular location, objectives and business plan associated with it. The applicable technologies include:

  • Wi-Fi, sometimes combined with mesh networking
  • 3G technologies from the mobile carriers--Korea and Japan have been among the most aggressive to roll this out and the US is finally starting
  • Pre-certification WiMAX technologies (sometimes in combination with Wi-Fi)
  • Proprietary or not-yet-standard technologies, which are generally faster than 3G and are sometimes loosely termed 4G, such as those from Flarion and Arraycomm

( www.phila.gov ) ( www.verizon.com )


Wi-Fi Mesh Networks

Tropos mesh network diagram --> Click for larger pictureWe have written previously about many of these technology categories, but have not talked much about mesh networking with Wi-Fi. For those not familiar with it, the key attribute of a mesh network is that there is no central device that controls what happens. Instead, each node has radio communications equipment and acts as a relay point for other nodes. (The Internet is an example of another system without central control.) One advantage of mesh networks is high reliability--if one node goes down, others are available to take over. Some people question, however, whether mesh networks scale well, especially in dense urban environments. The concern is that as the number of users increases, the amount of bandwidth left for user communications -- as opposed to mesh overhead -- declines significantly. Some of today's mesh networking companies assert that their protocols are designed that the overhead does not become problematic. Since we have not measured traffic in real-world situations or seen a model of carrying capacity versus usage, we haven't been able to draw definite conclusions.

What we can note here is that since the time 802.11/Wi-Fi was first introduced, successive enhancements of the standard have enormously improved its performance. A great deal of entrepreneurial vigor is going into finding ways to improve and leverage this technology, given that it has gained such significant presence in homes, offices and laptop computers.

The other feature that separates different wireless technologies and systems is whether they work in licensed or unlicensed spectrum. Most of the low cost or free networks use the unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, since there is no business case to pay for buying spectrum.


Current Projects and Technologies

To show the breadth of activity in this arena, we provide a quick snapshot of some of the projects that focus on this opportunity, the technologies they use and some of the recent product or standards announcements related to them. Our goal is not to make judgments, but simply to present some possible alternatives.

Wi-Fi "Clouds" and Wi-Fi Mesh:

  • BroVis Wireless Networks, (previously known as Air Manage Networks) is integrating technology from Atheros for an outdoor 802.11-based broadband wireless system destined for the Indian Subcontinent market. The Broadcell system also incorporates 802.11a capability that can be turned on in the future. ( www.brovis.com )
  • "Hotspot Amsterdam" is both the name of the service provider and a description of what its project is about. The first seven base stations are running and the entire city center will be covered by 40 to 60 antennas within three months. The project uses mesh networking from Hopling Technologies. The charging structure is 4.95 euros a day or 14.95 euros a month for a connection of 256 kilobits per second and 24.95 euros a month for 512 kbps service. ( www.hopling.com )
  • Chaska, MN (a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul) has installed Tropos Networks equipment and covers the 16 square mile footprint of the community. The city says the service can deliver symmetric data rates of 1-3 Mbps, with mobility, but lower speeds may result when users are farther from an access point or when the usage of the system is very heavy. The service costs $15.99/month. It is provided by chaska.net, a wireless internet service provider (WISP) owned and operated by the city. ( www.tropos.com ) ( www.chaska.net )
  • In early August PacketHop and Nortel signed a joint marketing agreement. They plan to initially target the U.S. homeland security market, with peer-to-peer mobile mesh communications systems for law enforcement and public safety agencies. A joint solution combining the two companiesí products is scheduled to be offered in the fourth quarter of 2004. The public safety/homeland security market has been attracting more interest as it prepares to invest in new wireless technologies to improve public safety and security. ( www.packethop.com ) ( www.nortel.com )
  • Another technology partnership addressing both public safety and more general use applications has been formed by Motorola and MeshNetworks -- Motorola will integrate MEA (MeshNetworks Enabled Architecture) technology into its products. ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.meshnetworks.com )
  • According to Wi-Fi Planet and ComputerWeekly, Tropos and MeshNetworks have each teamed up with system integrators and are contenders for the New York City RFP for a proposed $1 billion wireless municipal network for emergency workers. The network would provide mobile users from NY police and fire departments and the emergency services with broadband access to mug-shot and fingerprint databases, building floor plans and other information.

Wi-Fi plus mobile service

  • Cellular providers such as T-Mobile provide both cellular and Wi-Fi hotspot service, including joint billing.
  • Mobile phone makers like Nokia are starting to add Wi-Fi to some of their handset models, allowing much faster Internet access when in range of a hot spot compared with GPRS and UMTS connections offered by mobile operators.
  • Both T-Mobile and Nokia are participants in UMA (see briefly noted: Blending Mobile and Fixed Telecom) signalling their intentions for more integrated services in the future. ( www.t-mobile.com ) ( www.nokia.com )

Wi-Fi plus pre-WiMax technology for backhaul

  • The Mantsala regional in southern Finland is being expanded to cover an area of over 800 km2 in the Municipality of Mantsala plus neighboring cities and municipalities.. The network is owned and operated by Mantsalan Sahko, the local energy company. The system combines Wi-LAN's pre-WiMAX technology and Radionet's Wi-Fi technology. ( www.msoynet.fi ) ( www.wi-lan.com ) ( www.radionet.com )

WiMAX Forum logo --> Click for larger pictureWiMAX

  • The WiMAX Forum continues to rapidly increase its membership, which now includes nearly 140 companies. Nortel and Lucent are the most recent companies to join the group. ( www.wimaxforum.org )
  • At its Developers Conference earlier this month, Intel Corp. announced that it is sampling its WiMAX chipset to "strategic partners" in preparation for a wide-scale rollout in 2005. Code-named "Rosedale", it will include the 802.16-2004 MAC and OFDM PHY, plus a security coprocessor, TDM controller interface for streaming data and voice, and a 10/100 Ethernet core. Intel also shared its WiMAX plans, which include incorporating 802.16 into laptops by 2006 and handsets by 2007. ( www.intel.com )
  • Fujitsu Microelectronics America said it is on target for an early 2005 launch date for a single-chip WiMAX solution that integrates both PHY and MAC functionality. They also said they are working closely with leading equipment and infrastructure vendors for deployment in base stations and subscriber stations. ( www.fma.fujitsu.com )
  • picoChip is providing complete software implementations for 802.16 (WiMAX) base stations to its lead customers. The solution, known as PC8520, runs on their currently available PC102 picoArray digital signal processor and will be generally available this December. ( www.picochip.com )
  • Speakeasy received an investment from Intel Capital to test to begin technical tests of WiMAX later this year. ( www.speakeasy.com )

Just as this was not our first article on making broadband ubiquitous in cities, we're sure there are many more chapters yet to come.