[FoRK] WhyFi Doesn't It Work?

Ian Andrew Bell (FoRK) < fork at ianbell.com > on > Mon Apr 24 15:41:57 PDT 2006

I would like to interrupt this months-long discussion of Corinna's  
career objectives to posit an actual, honest-to-god theorem:

-  Municipal WiFi is bullshit.

WiFi is a hotspot technology.  Despite lots of crowing around WiFi  
Mesh networking I've yet to seen it work in practicum.  I, myself,  
experienced difficulty -- and ultimately a certain measure of failure  
-- in implementing on a hands-on basis a WiFi network intended to  
cover a measly 9-square-kilometers in a previously mentioned (and  
much hyped) project I undertook at a ski resort near me.

$15M will not even begin to provide reliable, broad coverage of even  
Downtown San Francisco from a WiFi networking standpoint, let alone  
the whole SF Bay Area.  And peoples' expectations are quite certain:   
they think it's a free, faster version of 3G, or at least another  

But it ain't.  The tech wasn't designed for that, and the equipment  
can't do it effectively.  Add to that every Tom Dick and Harry  
(especially in SF) running their OWN WiFi radios on every possible  
frequency (because it's unregulated), often with overlap-induced  
interference, and it's a recipe for failure.

Clearly politicians and the market are buying into this hoopla.   
Everyone clamoring for the nirvana of ubiquitously available, free,  
wireless data.  It might work in spots, but from personal experience  
I can tell you that the efforts of a couple of major portals and even  
a 10x multiple of $15M is not even close to enough (sorry FON) to get  
there while still meeting user (and politician) expectations.

If that was true then the sale of 1 Million LinkSys WRT54Gs in the  
Bay Area over the past four years would have already made it a reality.

The notion of hyping it as it has been so far is demeaning to the  
technology and ultimately dooms the entrants to the perception of  
failure.  Evidently none of these guys has a plan to secure radio  
rights-of-way, which is the real time/cost/availability bottleneck.   
Unless they're going to use lamp-posts, in which case good luck in  
the burbs.



Wi-Fi city sees startup woes

Associated Press

ST. CLOUD, Fla. — More than a month after St. Cloud launched what  
analysts say is the country's first free citywide Wi-Fi network,  
folks in this 28,000-person Orlando suburb are still paying to use  
their own Internet service providers as dead spots and weak signals  
keep some residents offline and force engineers to retool the free  

Joe Lusardi's friends back in New York couldn't believe it when he  
told them he'd have free Internet access through this city's new Wi- 
Fi network. "Everybody's happy they were going to have it, but I  
don't know if they're happy right now," said Lusardi, a 66-year-old  
retired New York City transit worker.

The same troubles with the small town's big Internet project could be  
lessons for municipalities from Philadelphia to San Francisco  
considering similar networks.

St. Cloud officials are spending more than $2-million on a network  
they see as a pioneering model for freeing local families, schools  
and businesses from monthly Internet bills. It also promises to help  
the city reduce cell-phone bills and let paramedics in an ambulance  
talk by voice and video to hospital doctors.

Instead, what they have so far is a work in progress.

"All technology has its hiccups, and sometimes more than hiccups,"  
St. Cloud Mayor Donna Hart said. "I think that it's going to be a  
major challenge, and it'll probably be a major challenge for some  
time until the technology is such that it works properly."

Wi-Fi is the same technology behind wireless Internet access in  
coffee shops, airports and college campuses around the country.

Several cities have Wi-Fi hotspots, but St. Cloud's 15-square-mile  
network is the first to offer free access citywide, said Seattle- 
based technology writer Glenn Fleishman, who runs a Web site called  
Wi-Fi Networking News.

Other cities like Tempe, Ariz., have networks over a larger area (485  
square kilometres), but access isn't free. Planned projects in places  
like Chicago and Philadelphia would also dwarf St. Cloud's network,  
but also require a fee for access.

Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are teaming up to build a $15-million  
Wi-Fi network across San Francisco, and their proposal is entering  
final negotiations. EarthLink's faster offering would cost $20 per  
month, while Google would provide a slower, free service financed by  

St. Cloud launched the network on a trial basis in May 2004 in a new  
division of town to help give businesses an incentive to relocate.  
After further exploring the benefits, officials decided to expand it  

Project supporters say increased efficiency in city government will  
cover the network's $2.6-million buildout and estimated $400,000  
annual operating expense.

For example, phones that use the Wi-Fi network will allow it to cut  
cell-phone bills for police and city workers. The city can avoid  
adding 10 more building inspectors because the network will existing  
employees to enter and access data onsite instead of driving back to  
the office.

The network also could keep the estimated $450 that St. Cloud  
households now spend each year on high-speed access in the local  

As of last week, nearly 3,500 users had registered for the network,  
logging 176,189 total hours of use. St. Cloud contracted with Hewlett- 
Packard Co. to build the project and provide customer support.

"HP is working with the city and its partners to optimize the  
solution and install additional access points to help improve signal  
strength in isolated areas of the city," the company said in a  

So far, there have been plenty of calls from frustrated residents.  
Some can see receivers from their homes and still can't sign on —  
even on the porch. Others have tried to connect countless times.

Still, HP said that there were only 842 help-line calls out of more  
than 50,000 user sessions in the first 45 days of service.

At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi  
network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors.  
Even then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per  
month Sprint DSL service.

Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the  
idea of dropping his pay service and using the network.

"It's just total frustration," Lusardi said. "I'm going to stay with  
the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work.  
Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say it's  
underutilized and they're going to shut it down."

Lusardi didn't shell out the money for a signal-boosting device St.  
Cloud recommends for those having trouble connecting — City Hall  
sells them for $170.

Fleishman said the fact that others share Lusardi's frustration is a  
crucial technical and public relations problem for the vanguard  
project. He said residents should understand many won't be able to  
use the free network without additional equipment to strengthen the  

"It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit  
some of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is  
out there," he said. "Products have to catch up to this new market."

Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems — in  
bigger cities, even larger ones — if they didn't fully inform the  
public of necessary equipment and network limits.

Former Mayor Glenn Sangiovanni, who spearheaded the project, stressed  
that kinks were still being worked out, but noted that not everyone  
was having problems.

"There's a lot of variables, and that's part of it," Sangiovanni  
said. "It could be the block construction you have, it could be the  
tin roof you have. There's lots of different things that could be  
unique to your environment as opposed to my environment.

"We went into this with the expectation that it's really a year plan  
that we're going to implement," he added. "You don't know what you're  
going to get into when you take on the whole city because you can't  
stress test that."

Ashley Austin, a freshman at nearby Florida Christian College, said  
she likes using the network to do homework on the city's picturesque  
downtown lakefront. She said it's also the only way to get on-line if  
Internet service is down at the wireless telephone store where she  

"So far I haven't had any problems with the use that I've gotten out  
of it," she said.

Resident Chuck Cooper, a former city commissioner, bought an antenna,  
but still gets a shaky connection. Navigating from one site to  
another still produces errors.

Generally, he says, it's slightly faster than dial-up access. But  
even critics like him are quick to praise the endeavour in between  
grumbles over early problems.

"All in all, I guess it's a good idea," Cooper said. "I equate it to  
cellphones 10 to 15 years ago. You used to have a lot of dropped  
calls, but now they're substantially better. Hopefully, this will get  
a little better a lot quicker."

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