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Wireless Week and other publications have written extensively about muni Wi-Fi. These networks do seem to be the new rage. I wrote a series of commentaries (www.4mobility.com) in which I pointed out how unrealistic these systems are when it comes to the number of access points, in-building coverage and other issues.

I do not doubt that the technology needed to build these muni wireless broadband systems exists – mesh network technology, backhaul carried over wired and wireless services (WiMAX?) – so I do not have a problem with the technology. What I do have a problem with is this is happening on unlicensed spectrum over which the city and/or its contractors have no control.

After my commentaries appeared, I received dozens of e-mails from people in San Francisco and Philadelphia telling me they could already "see" 10 or more access points from their homes and/or offices. Several said the range of their own access point had become limited because neighbors on all sides also had deployed access points for their own use.

This is my issue. If you plan to spend millions of dollars on muni Wi-Fi, you will have to spend millions more to keep it running and to fix it when it breaks due to new interference. You cannot simply sweep an area, find places where there is no interference and install access points. There is no guarantee that tomorrow there won't be new access points that will affect your system.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published (Oct. 17) an article written by Ryan Kim, who did a great job of conveying both sides of the issues. In the story, there is a quote from Steh Fearey, vice president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, which is deploying a muni Wi-Fi system to cover that area. "We can't get into buildings; that would be overwhelming. It is a lot of money to reach all those places. You have to set up separate access points for every couple hundred feet. In an apartment building 10 stories high, that's a lot of antennas [access points] indoors."

Given that muni Wi-Fi systems operate on unlicensed spectrum that no one can control, and that it will not provide coverage indoors beyond a few feet, I have to wonder what these muni Wi-Fi folks think they are going to accomplish.

Interference will be an ongoing issue, and coverage and data speeds will denigrate over time. Who will handle customer support calls? Who will be available to answer questions about getting configured and on line? Who will spend the time and money to educate people about the potential hazards of a non-secure, non-encrypted connection to the Internet?

There is no doubt that these systems will be built. The hype surrounding them is growing by the day. Will they really provide the services to the cities and their inhabitants that the elected officials believe they will? Will poor neighborhoods have Wi-Fi access but no computers with which to access the Internet?

There are plenty of questions I have not seen answered anywhere except by bidders assuring city fathers that it will be built and it will work as advertised. I have not even addressed the issue of whether a city should be in the telecommunications business. I will leave that for others.

The questions I am raising should be addressed by city leaders before moving forward. If they think they will have a clear shot at this spectrum, they are sadly mistaken. If they think they will not need customer service, they are sadly mistaken. If they think the networks, once built, will continue to function and provide years of trouble-free service, they are equally mistaken.

Technology is not the issue. Building a muni Wi-Fi network on unlicensed, uncontrolled spectrum is. If cities want to build these systems (and I still cannot find a business model), they should build them on licensed, protected spectrum. But go for it, folks. The roar of hype is deafening, so the questions I have asked are simply background noise for now.


Author Information
Seybold heads the Andrew Seybold Group and is editor-in-chief of the 3GToday eNewsletter.
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