TECH TALK: City Wi-Fi Networks: The US Scene

The Economist discussed municipal Wi-Fi networks in a recent article (March 9):

Small municipal wireless networks, typically built for local-government use, have been up and running in some parts of America for some time. The far bolder idea of building citywide networks available to all took flight in August 2004, when plans for such a network were announced by John Street, the mayor of Philadelphia. Stringing transmitters across the entire city would create the world’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot, providing access both indoors and out.
This would extend low-cost broadband access to existing users frustrated by the slow speed and high cost of dial-up internet connections.

Mesh networking allows large areas to be blanketed with wireless coverage quickly and inexpensively. As its name suggests, a mesh network consists of an array of wireless access points, only a few of which are actually connected back to the internet via high-speed links (known as backhaul connections). The trick is that all of the access points double as relays, passing packets of data to and from their neighbours. This connects up the mesh, so that users can access the internet at high speed at any of the access points. If the nearest access point does not have a backhaul connection, the packets of data that users send and receive simply make one or more hops across the mesh.

As well as being cheap and fast to set uppartly because many of the access points can be attached to utility polesmesh networks have several other merits. They can provide coverage in areas, such as sprawling suburbs, where fast copper or fibre-optic connections are hard to come by.

The advantage of using Wi-Fi is that it operates in the unlicenced frequency bands. (In India, there may still be some licences required for the use.)

The Wall Street Journal (March 20) wrote: Most of the municipal networks use the same wireless technology, Wi-Fi, that provides Internet “hotspots” at coffee shops and airports. Small radio transponders are deployed on public buildings, street lamps, and streetlights, creating a network that consumers can connect to with their laptops almost anywhere in a city. That network itself is connected to the Internet. The cities often charge users around $15 a month for the service, though cities such as St. Cloud, Fla., are opting for free access. That compares with cable broadband bills that typically run around $40. DSL services from the large phone companies can run as low as $15 a month for slower speeds, but speeds closer to cable are roughly $30…EarthLink inked a deal with Philadelphia on March 1 to offer service there by putting radio transponders on 4,000 of the city’s street lamps. The service will be about $10 a month for low-income people, $20 a month for the general public. The company is bidding in a partnership with Google in San Francisco to offer a service that would be free at slow speeds, and would go for a moderate fee at higher speeds.

Tomorrow: Taipei’s Lead

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.