The WiFi Dead End: Why Municipal Wireless Won't Last

For several years now, the buzz in Internet access is firmly planted around wireless technologies. From hotspots in coffee shops to WiFi built into Nintendo's latest handheld, wireless has proved its popularity through ubiquity. I have to admit, I'm always pleased to find free wireless Internet in an airport when I travel. Wireless, though, is not a long-term solution for cracking the cable and telco duolopy.

In order to have the mobility and ease of use of WiFi, some sacrifices have to be made. Wireless has a limited range that is commonly interrupted by obstructions, cordless phones, and even microwave ovens. It also compromises on speed, currently only offering 1/20th of the speed of commonly available gigabit LAN equipment. I've had a hard time getting my wireless signal to make it across the house even with countless hacks, and the speed often leaves a lot to be desired when you are at the periphery of the signal.

Many cities though, including San Jose and Philadelphia, are smitten with the idea of creating wireless clouds of Internet access in their cities at little or no cost to users. As they either solicit either expensive rollout proposals or give a new monopoly to AT&T or Earthlink, they do not give their citizens true competition in broadband choice. These "municipal in name only" networks are really exclusive agreements with a new monopolist looking to muscle in on the incumbent telephone and cable companies with special concessions from the city.

These wireless networks are often deployed with lower speeds than DSL or cable, and they don't offer the same reliability that their land-based service can. The limited range of WiFi means installing thousands of access points to cover a larger city, and this creates a plague of wireless signals that interfere with telecommunications and medical equipment. There's also limited resources to go after those who violate the AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) of the network including spammers, phishers, and black hat hackers.

The proponents of wireless would have us believe that by being able to check our e-mail in the park or browse Amazon from a traffic jam will somehow usher in a new era of human history. I hate to burst the pundits' bubbles, but this is the kind of unnecessary superlative that belongs in a press release. Most of us use our computers at home or in the office, even when we have a laptop. If we do cut the wires, we prefer to stay on the corporate LAN or attached to the printer on our home network. Cutting the wires won't change how we work, play, and live. No, it will take gobs of bandwidth unlocking new collaborative technologies to do that.

This is why municipal fiber is the real mover and shaker. It's not glamorous and it doesn't get a lot of press. You won't find a lot of cheerleaders writing columns in Wired for it, and it's not making waves in the blogosphere. No, much like the millionaire in your middle-class neighborhood, it is hard-working and unassuming. At the end of the day, it has spent more time getting things done than talking about how great it is, and the hard work shows.

Wireless can't bring you phone service. It can't bring you TV service. It barely competes on price and rarely competes on speed. It spends so much time hyping up the novelty of being online without plugging in a wire to distract you from all of its shortcomings.

Fiber gives you phone service at rock-bottom prices from competing carriers. It does the same for cable TV, offering all of the same features as the cable company but without the bloated bill. The Internet speeds are blazing fast and the prices give you more bang for your buck than the highest speed cable or DSL. Yet it does all of this unassumingly with nary a toot of its own horn.

These high speeds and low prices will enable true telecommuting of the likes we have never seen before. You'll be able to access files in your office as if you were sitting right next to the server. You can participate in virtual meetings with high-resolution desktop sharing and video teleconferencing that lives up to the hype. You can share large volumes of data with far-flung co-workers without having to wait endlessly. High-speed connections will be the fulfillment of every lofty promise ever made by the telecommuting crowd.

Wireless can't deliver with its paltry range and speeds. Ten years from now, cities who invested in wireless systems as a short-term savings will realize what a long-term lose it is compared to a fiber optic network. Networks like UTOPIA are the future of telecommunications infrastructure.

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