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Into thin air -- Why Silicon Valley Wi-Fi fizzled

Original post made on Jul 9, 2008

It seemed like such a good idea — Internet for everyone, everywhere. So much so that cities across the United States announced plans for citywide Wi-Fi networks in an excited chorus starting in the early 2000s. Photos by Marjan Sadoughi/Palo Alto Weekly.

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    Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, July 8, 2008, 11:41 PM
  • Comments (13)

    Posted by Jon
    a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 9:05 am

    "Citywide Wi-Fi access seemed brimming with potential a few years ago. Proponents said a free service, or at least one that offered both free and premium options, could help poorer communities reap Web-based benefits."

    Once you understand how wireless technology continues to evolve at a quick pace

    Wireless 802.11 b
    then 802.11 a
    then 802.11 g
    and now 802.11 n except it was a "draft"
    and now now, you have 802.11 n Draft 2
    which will hopefully be it for now...
    wait, then there is WiMAX and the technology is still being developed.

    you realize "brimming with potential" was no more than a mirage. Proponents need to be reminded if the poor have trouble with getting access, there are other ways to do so. Their children can use the computers at schools, and with a state requirement for public schools to offer internet access, they could also do what Fon did and have a whole network running off of a few selected wireless access points, and with everyone using the same gear, they would each be paying a fraction of what they pay now by all chipping in. My point here is communities, if they take their own initiatives, can make it happen.

    "It would democratize the Internet, they said. Others dreamt of improved business or city services, or just offering residents another Internet provider."

    I never figgured if a city-wide WiFi network would interfere with personal WiFi networks, since it is an issue that occurs between two wireless routers with overlapping signals. Also the democratization of the internet is a dual edged sword. Here is an interesting article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Web Link

    Let me also say, I don't think the internet is well used, and the democratization among the youth leads to an unhealthy addiction to online games, and honestly not a lot of education.

    Jordan's LapTop program was a big effing joke, and clearly ignored the social inequalities by asking everyone to pony up 2k for a flimsy Mac running OS9.

    Paly has laptop carts, but whenever they are used, students are surfing on Facebook and Youtube, and not actually working.

    If we get kids off the computer, they can focus on their studies and actually have a good shot at going far in their educational careers.

    Back to "the internets"

    God-forbid there is a sizable group still using dial-up...and with basic DSL at around $15-20/mo, it's nearly the same price now.

    Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-California) Also had a great idea, except Gizmodo remained cynical.
    Web Link

    I end with this note:
    So everyone gets their fat economic stimulus checks from Uncle Sam.
    Immediately, the porn industry experiences a surge in sales growth.
    Web Link

    Posted by Just-the-Facts
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 10:03 am

    While there are those who envision a day when government provided Broadband snakes its way into every government provided dwelling unit and government-run business in the land .. there are some realities to consider:
    Web Link

    Study says many dial-up users don't want broadband

    By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Internet Writer Thu Jul 3, 1:34 AM ET

    NEW YORK - A new study suggests that attitude rather than availability may be the key reason why more Americans don't have high-speed Internet access.

    The findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Project challenge the argument that broadband providers need to more aggressively roll out supply to meet demand.

    Only 14 percent of dial-up users say they're stuck with the older, slower connection technology because they can't get broadband in their neighborhoods, Pew reported Wednesday.

    Thirty-five percent say they're still on dial-up because broadband prices are too high, while another 19 percent say nothing would persuade them to upgrade. The remainder have other reasons or do not know.

    "That suggests that solving the supply problem where there are availability gaps is only going to go so far," said John Horrigan, the study's author. "It's going to have to be a process of getting people more engaged with information technology and demonstrating to people it's worth it for them to make the investment of time and money."

    Nonetheless, the Pew study does support concerns that rural Americans have more trouble getting faster Internet connections, which bring greater opportunities to work from home or log into classes at distant universities. Twenty-four percent of rural dial-up users say they would get broadband if it becomes available, compared with 11 percent for suburbanites and 3 percent for city dwellers.

    Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's key inventors and an advocate for the idea that the government should be more active in expanding broadband, suspects that many more dial-up users would be interested in going high-speed if they had a better idea of what they're missing. He pointed out that broadband access is available from only one provider in many areas, keeping prices high and speeds low.

    "Some residential users may not see a need for higher speeds because they don't know about or don't have ability to use high speeds," Cerf said. "My enthusiasm for video conferencing improved dramatically when all family members had MacBook Pros with built-in video cameras, for example."

    Overall, Pew found that 55 percent of American adults now have broadband access at home, up from 47 percent a year earlier and 42 percent in March 2007. By contrast, only 10 percent of Americans now have dial-up access.

    Despite the increase in overall broadband adoption, though, growth has been flat among blacks and poorer Americans.

    Of the Americans with no Internet access at all, about a third say they have no interest in logging on, even at dial-up speeds. Nearly 20 percent of nonusers had access in the past but dropped it. Older and lower-income Americans are most likely to be offline.

    Pew's telephone study of 2,251 U.S. adults, including 1,553 Internet users, was conducted April 8 to May 11 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. The error margins for subgroups are higher — plus or minus 7 percentage points for the dial-up sample.

    Posted by eric
    a resident of Mountain View
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 10:40 am

    The free wi-fi (courtesy of Google) in Mtn View is very heavily used-- I use it myself in my home (only as a backup to my own network) and around town, both indoors and out- it is pretty reliable in most parts of town. If you go to city hall plaza on a nice day, I guarantee you'll see someone with a laptop logged on via Google-- the Voice reporter must have gone out when it was raining!

    I think PA would be better served by pursuing this sort of tech than the broadband plan currently under consideration.

    Posted by It's-In-The-Air
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 11:24 am

    This article is so long--and devoid of meaningful information--that it can only be seen as propaganda, intended to marginalize emerging wireless networking technologies.

    WiFi was designed to have a footprint with a radius of 300 feet (outdoors). Indoors, its footprint is much less--based on building construction. The whole idea has reliability problems ingrained in its DNA. While small-zone WiFi (like a downtown area, or a small town like Mountain View) is feasible--large zone deployments are rife with problems. Since the access points are exposed (generally on street lights), vandals can easily shoot out the boxes--making the system unavailable and the cost to operate higher than predicted.

    The cost of the in-door amplifier (cited at $100 in the article) solves most of the building penetration problems--but some how the idea of paying $100 to save spending thousands for low-end Internet access seemed to hard a concept for many to grasp.

    The next generation wireless Internet access technology (called WiMax) has been under development for some time now--championed by Intel, and other industry giants:

    Web Link

    This technology is being deployed world wide. In fact, WiMax is being deployed in rural Alberta (the home of "SuperNet")--making up about 20% of the network.

    The reality is that all network technology is expensive .. so investors are necessarily conservative about using their own money to deploy a lot of high cost fiber--which could take decades to see a return on investment that is meaningful.

    WiMax offers network providers reasonably inexpensive alternatives to expensive fiber in less densely populated areas, as well as urban areas:

    Web Link

    Fixed wireless player plans more U.K. WiMAX
    By Peter Judge , TechWorld , 07/08/2008

    The U.K.'s largest fixed wireless access (FWA) provider, is moving its network to WiMAX, and the EC has announced a decision that should
    increase the availability of WiMAX spectrum in Europe.

    On-Communications, which offers fixed wireless services designed to compete with business-quality leased lines, already operates in London, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and Oxford, and will be using equipment from Airspan for a major rollout of "hundreds" of WiMAX base stations. New installations will use Airspan's MicroMax products, and the existing networks will be moved to WiMAX more gradually, the company said.

    WiMax would have been a much better choice for the regional Wireless Internet project than WiFi.

    (The article does not, by the way, remind us of Mr. Fearey's association with the failed Palo Alto Co-Op Cable Operation.)

    Posted by GoogleUser
    a resident of Mountain View
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I use Google's wifi in my home for my only internet service. We did buy the amplifier; anyone who reads up on this ahead of time should know that you would probably need one to boost the signal indoors. It generally works well--occasionally in the early evening, the network seems to slow down. Perhaps lots of people all logging on through the same node at one time? Don't know. It has been much better lately. In general, it is at least as fast as our old DSL service was, similar reliability--and free. Can't beat that. My husband's laptop always works well outdoors using Google, too. I like it.

    Posted by WiFi User
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    "When governments from Philadelphia to San Francisco announced plans for municipal Wi-Fi systems circa 2004 they were hesitant to incur costs. So many brokered deals that saddled Internet firms with the task of building and running networks."

    Uh, nice whitewashing of history.
    Earthlink, one of those "saddled" Internet firms was actually an active and vocal force in grabbing those deals-low bidding and muscling out other options with their promises of how they and only they had the expertise, knowledge, and wherewithal to handle the wi-fi buildup.

    Then their stock tanked, they re-organized, and cancelled their contracts with several cities, leaving Milpitas, SF, and Philadelphia out in the cold. No one "saddled" Earthlink with anything-they fought to get those contracts, and failed to deliver what they promised.

    Did you actually research information on Earthlink's municipal Wi-fi involvement and failures at all?

    Posted by veejaytsunamix
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Meanwhile in Europe:
    100,000 broadband customers switch on to BT Fon

    BT today announced that it has attracted over 100,000 members in the UK to BT FON, the world’s largest Wi-Fi community, where members share their broadband connection to establish a network of wireless hotspots. BT has also been recognised for its success with the BT FON community project, launched with its partner Fon, by being named the most Innovative Wireless Broadband Company by the 2008 Wireless Broadband Innovation Awards.

    Since the launch of BT FON in October last year, 100,000 BT Total Broadband customers have come together to join the BT FON community, creating thousands of new Wi-Fi hotspots up and down the country.

    Posted by Andrew
    a resident of Mountain View
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Count me as another Google Wifi home user. When I started using it about a year ago it was pretty unreliable, but now it is acceptable to me. No idea why, but right around when they offered "GoogleWifiSecure" it became much more reliable. No, it isn't as fast as Comcast, but it gets the job done. I did have to buy the $100 antenna booster, but I don't complain.

    Posted by wireless love
    a resident of Midtown
    on Jul 9, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    WiFi is very cool technology. I'm using it right now. We couldn't prosper without it. The United States is essentially a backwards nation. even right here in Silicon Valley, the so-called center of the technology universe. Heck, we don't even have fiber!

    Posted by Dark-Fiber
    a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
    on Jul 10, 2008 at 6:13 am

    > Heck, we don't even have fiber!

    Fiber is in use in the communications backbones of Silicon Valley. AT&T U-Verse, and Comcast .. have installed fiber into the neighborhoods. Fiber has been installed in many apartment complexes through the Silicon Valley.

    There is a lot of "dark fiber" available.

    Posted by Jon
    a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
    on Jul 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    What we have these days is a large focus on internet availability but none on its uses. Are we really providing access to children for the sake of education or just for their amusement/risk?

    Are we educating our students about great learning resources out there that can help them in school and succeed, or are we just giving them a blank check to waste their time online checking their MySpace page and Facebook excessively or playing flash-based shooter games?

    If there was more focus on the practical utilization of the internets, then access can bring people out of poverty. (Nearly all research shows that literacy and rise out of poverty are directly correlated).

    Posted by JMchugh
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 11, 2008 at 9:15 am

    wifi is like another other municipal system, be it power, fone, sewer, cabletv or water. It arrives at your address, then you must do something to bring it into your address. an uninformed or misinformed person would expect to have perfect reception in their building. Not possible unless the neighborhood network radio is directly outside in the PROW. another error in the original article is the concept of a node. the commonly-held description of a node is where the signal changes from optical to radio frequency...from line to rf.
    Web Link
    the rest are just neighborhood mesh radios, perhaps using wi-max for point to point link for the first hop from a node.

    Posted by Brett Glass
    a resident of another community
    on Jul 20, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    In 1992, I left Palo Alto (where, I realized, I would never be able to afford a house that could hold me and my work) for Laramie, Wyoming, where I started the first wireless broadband Internet provider. That provider, LARIAT, started as a nonprofit community Internet, paid for by its members. Note that I say, "paid for." We realized from the very start that bandwidth, equipment, operations, etc. to provide a quality service cost money, and that there's no free lunch. Members' dues paid for the service for many years, but after awhile they were eager to see capital investment in the network -- something we could not do as a nonprofit because an investor cannot own part of a nonprofit. So, the members persuaded me and my wife to take the network private, and we have been running as a privately owned wireless ISP to this day.

    This business model works. However, the business models for municipal Wi-Fi never have. They've always been analogous to "free beer for everyone..." or maybe "free electricity for everyone." Quality Internet service simply costs too much to provide to give away, and unless there are limits on who can use it -- and folks pay their freight -- the network simply becomes overloaded and unusable.

    Rather than proposing to provide free Internet for all, municipalities should instead work on making it easy for private providers to use the poles, towers, tall buildings, etc. that exist in their communities to compete for citizens' business. No exclusive contracts; no playing favorites. This leads to real competition and the best deal for everyone.

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