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Muni Wi-Fi: Its limitations

(Third in a series)

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The recent spate of criticism regarding municipal Wi-Fi networks falls into two different categories: technology and business case.

In the case of technology, some cities and towns, as well as some users, have been disappointed at what Wi-Fi won’t do in terms of providing ubiquitous Internet access, particularly in-building. In the instance of business-case failure, the movement away from free or ad-supported Internet access to an anchor tenant requirement that forces municipalities to pony up for Wi-Fi has led some cities to cancel their plans.

Both types of problems are primarily solvable through greater education about Wi-Fi networks and what their possibilities are, to establish more reasonable expectations, as well as better planning, industry experts say.

But even with education and planning, there are limits to what Wi-Fi can do. Mike Burns, president of, has been building Wi-Fi networks for years and once operated an 11-mile Wi-Fi link in Broward County, Fla. Today he is engaged in deploying Wi-Fi in RV parks in Florida, and he remains skeptical as to how the technology will scale.

“We might put up five to six access points in one park, that’s about a quarter of a square mile,” he said. “And there are still inevitably sites that won’t have access.”

Burns and others identify the primary problem with in-building Wi-Fi coverage as the limited power in laptop Wi-Fi functionality. Laptops that come with 802.11 functionality tend to operate at 30 milliwatts to 50 milliwatts of power, which may not be enough to connect to an outdoor Wi-Fi antenna.

“You can put up a high gain antenna and amplify the signal, but you can’t amplify the user’s transmit,” Burns said. “You try to get your receive sensitivity as low as you can. What inevitably happens is the customer can see us, and they view the available wireless network because we are blasting them, but they can’t get access because their return signal is so low. It’s like two people talking across a lake, and only one has a megaphone.”

One answer to this basic problem is to use CPE that can boost the return signal to the home, and many Wi-Fi operators are making that available to consumers. Strix Systems built its own CPE that has multiple radios and the intelligence to pick the strongest available signal, at a cost of between $100 and $200.

“Once this market gets to the size of the cable modem market, the CPE equipment will get down to the same range,” said Martin Levetin, vice president of Carrier and Municipal Networks at Strix. “It is hardly more expensive now. The distribution models vary but mostly the service providers will provide it for a couple of good reasons, one of which is the ability to have multiple offers, such as paying for it all at once, or over time via a service contract.”

Levetin believes service providers need to educate the consuming public more on Wi-Fi’s in-building limitations to reduce consumer frustration.

EarthLink has always advocated using a higher power radio with a PC to boost the signal, said Cole Reinwand, vice president of product strategy and marketing for EarthLink Municipal Networks. “It’s the same as a cable or DSL modem, except it has a radio antenna on it. There does need to be a little bit of consumer education on it. People think having Wi-Fi means they can walk around their homes getting access, but in this case the laptop would need to be linked to the radio.”

It is possible to attach a Wi-Fi router to the radio, just as a consumer would attach one to a DSL or cable modem, both to enable mobility within the home, and to connect multiple PCs, Reinwand said. “We offer equipment at no cost to the customer if they sign up for one year, or they can purchase it outright for $69.95,” Reinwand said.

MetroFi, another Wi-Fi provider, also advises use of additional CPE to enable in-building use of muni Wi-Fi networks and is seeing a proliferation of the necessary devices, said Lou Pelosi, vice president of business and municipal marketing. 

“We are seeing a greater number of devices available at retail,” he said. “That is going to help. There are some people who won’t require additional equipment, but the vast majority will.”

There have also been complaints about general Wi-Fi coverage, however, because expectations of Wi-Fi were high, and consumers expectations may have been unrealistic.

Strix addresses this through a multi-radio system that uses at least three radios in a single node, so that the node can handle backhaul of traffic without sacrificing bandwidth for access, Levetin said. “We can sustain maximum capacity of 100 Mb/s through one of the nodes,” he said.

In addition, Wi-Fi as mobility limits, said Chip Yager, director of operations for Motorola’s Mesh Network Product group.

“Wi-Fi is challenged in mobility, and the Wi-Fi standards as they are written are always going to be a challenge for fast-moving vehicles,” he said. “The technology wasn’t built to generate handoffs, or provide secure transmission in place to place from access point to access point.”

Since public safety applications are a prime feature of many anchor tenancy deals, Motorola offers a mobility option that isn’t part of the WiFi standard but is based on technology called MEA or mobility enable access that was developed for the military. Its MotoMesh Quatro system is a four-radio box that includes two radios in the 4.9 Mhz spectrum, one a standard WiFi and one MEA, as well as two radios at 2.4 GigaHertz, also one standard WiFi and one MEA, to support some level of mobility.

Many of the issues surrounding WiFi are the natural challenges of a new technology that has been rapidly brought to market with very high expectations, says one of the technology pioneers.

“There are things we are working to optimize,” said EarthLink’s Reinwand. “We are deploying 40 to 50 modes per square mile, and we are trying to push that down. We have only been deploying a year or two, so we are still at the very early stages. Yet people expect this service to be on par with technologies that have been around 20 years, like cellular. There is a lot of impatience for a high-end robust system. We consider a lot of this to be growing pains, including unforeseen issues with the technology, and a lot of issues that come from dealing with the bureaucracy of a city.”

Next: Wi-Fi vs. WiMAX

Related Headlines

Part 2: What’s working with muni Wi-Fi

Part 1: Being cautious with muni Wi-Fi

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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