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Is Wireless Philadelphia obsolete?

 

By Meir Rinde

October 17, 2007

 

EarthLink is still finishing its buildout of Philadelphia’s Wi-Fi network, but the cutting edge of wireless Internet access has already moved on.

That’s not just because the money-losing company fired half its employees in August and pulled back from plans for wireless networks in Houston, San Francisco and Chicago.

It’s also because other ways to surf the Internet via radio waves are rapidly becoming feasible for the average joe. A number of emerging technologies try in various ways to avoid the technical problems that are hobbling municipal Wi-Fi projects.

Wi-Fi remains useful for creating hotspots and short-range networks, so it’s not going away. But within a couple years the alternatives could end up giving Philadelphians what John Street and his fellow would-be telecom revolutionaries once thought Wi-Fi would provide: wireless broadband access for everyone.

The other technologies have their drawbacks, including higher costs, but telecommunication companies are already finding that people are willing to pay for wireless that really works.

“Never underestimate the draw of convenience,” says Kenneth Blackney, an associate vice president at Drexel who’s in charge of the university’s wireless network. “Having a pervasive network, just being able to pick up and go and still be doing your work… That has real draw for people. Freedom is worth an awful lot.”

There’s still hope for wireless. We just need to choose the right solution. Here are a few possibilities.

 

>> Stick with Wi-Fi but redesign the network. For the Spanish company FON, that means selling special $40 routers that serve as do-it-yourself wireless kits. Hook the router up to a cable or DSL Internet connection, and voila, you’ve got a wireless hotspot and the makings of a grassroots Wi-Fi network.

FON members can connect to each other’s hotspots for free, giving them Internet access around town and around the world. Members can also earn a few bucks by selling wireless Internet access to nonmembers.

But the system depends on members still paying for old-fashioned cable and DSL Internet connections, which, Blackney notes, their contracts generally forbid them from sharing. And the FON signal is still Wi-Fi, which is stymied by exotic obstacles like trees and walls. FON’s map currently shows just 13 hotspots in Center City and about 20 in the rest of Philadelphia.

“It’s a big long-term bet, because their opportunity is to have a big enough network that it really provides widespread connectivity,” says Kevin Werbach, a wireless expert and Wharton School assistant professor, who knows FON’s founder.

 

>> A very different system that could end up serving some of the same Internet users is called 3G technology, which sends data over cell phone signals. For years business travelers have connected cell phones to their computers or gone online via laptop PC cards, and these days subscribers can also use USB adapters or cell-to-Wi-Fi routers.

Until recently such connections weren’t that much faster than dialup, but in urban areas Verizon and Sprint are upgrading their networks to Wi-Fi or DSL speed.

3G isn’t perfect. Cell reception can be dodgy, and Verizon’s plan restricts what and how much a user can download. The biggest barrier is the cost, which runs about $60 a month for an unlimited-use Internet plan. By comparison, Earthlink Wi-Fi starts at $19.95. Verizon DSL is $32.99 and Comcast cable is $59.95, and both are cheaper when bundled with other services.

 

>> A potentially more reliable technology is the much-touted Mobile WiMax, which broadcasts a high-speed network for miles. As with 3G, users stay connected as they move around town, and don’t have to depend on hotspots. Sprint will debut the country’s first large WiMax network in early 2008, and bring it to Philadelphia later in the year.

“Mobile WiMax is a really interesting development, because suddenly you have the ability to get a little card you throw into your computer and pick up a signal that’s running at much, much greater speeds,” Blackney says. “That’s a huge change.”

“It’s going to be a real challenge to the DSLs and the cables, let alone the municipal Wi-Fi crowd,” says Francis Rabuck, a Philadelphia technology consultant and wireless expert. “Hopefully the municipal Wi-Fi movement doesn’t get such a black eye that people are against the concept overall.”

Others are more skeptical, in part because WiMax was designed to build network infrastructure—to shoot a signal from a central station to antenna towers, not to individual users. “The notion that WiMax is somehow the next generation of all wireless is much too simplified,” Werbach says.

Much remains unclear about WiMax. Sprint’s CEO quit last week, sowing doubts about the company’s plans. And it’s unclear whether WiMax will be affordable enough to entice users. Blackney thinks early subscribers will have to pay as much as $80 a month, especially since Sprint already has a cheaper, slower alternative in its 3G cell network.

The company has suggested it will offer multiple tiers of WiMax. Rabuck thinks the tiers might break down to $20 for iPhone-type devices, $50 for unlimited browsing, and $80 for a higher-speed option.

Eventually, as Verizon’s cell network gets faster, Sprint will have to bring down its WiMax prices to compete, Blackney says. The resulting competitive spiral could finally make high-speed wireless affordable for casual users.

 

>> In the longer term, the radio wave spectrum will likely provide Internet surfers with even more options. In 2009 TV will go completely digital, and the frequencies that carried analog signals for decades will be freed up for other uses.

Those frequencies get through obstacles better than Wi-Fi or WiMax, so telecommunication companies are salivating at the prospect of using them to carry the Web, phone calls or whatever else consumers desire.

 

Meir Rinde previously wrote about Wireless Philadelphia. Comments on this story can be sent to letters@philadelphiaweekly.com.

 

The article is also HERE in the Philadelphia Weekly archive.