I think it’s time to set the municipal alarm and wake the industry back up. Between Verizon and Sprint, I can’t figure out whose marketing department is worse. I do know these companies keep supporting more reasons to push WiFi. The technical divisions of these companies finally deploy high-speed mobile broadband but they promptly shoot themselves in the foot by either limiting users to 5GB per month or throttling to 256Kbps which is slower than EV-DO. I can’t even in good conscience beat up AT&T since everyone else, including Consumer Reports, is already doing that. I think it’s more of an admission that 4G is overhyped and oversold. Apparently getting bandwidth to the tower is a lot harder than getting bandwidth from the tower to the user. It doesn’t matter how much horsepower the car has if you can’t get gas in the engine. I think I will keep my unlimited bandwidth EV-DO card a few more months until Clearwire shows up in our city with an investor in tow. Right now I’m not even sure that a 12-month contract has any value with them.

What happened to the promise of municipal WiFi?

The original idea behind municipal mesh WiFi deployments was to provide higher bandwidth wireless broadband service and at the same time, make money for the wireless ISPs. Earthlink and MetroFi weren’t pouring money into city after city for charitable reasons although they used different revenue models. Earthlink wanted the users to pay and MetroFi wanted and MetroFi had a dual model: free access with ads or paid access with no ads. The revenue projections must have looked good to investors. The only decent revenue they got was when Microsoft kicked in a bunch of money to be their partner. Unfortunately the RF engineers were left out of the meeting between investors and the IT department. Usually it’s because everyone assumes that the engineer will tell the truth, but we will get to xG technologies later.

Sadly, the municipal wireless industry as a whole has resigned itself to the government or the utility industry as being the only clients. I applaud the idea that government is trying to become more efficient as those two words in the same sentence are typically an oxymoron. Unfortunately, the idea of municipal wireless as anotherlast-mile pipe to the internet is now the exception rathern than the rule. It seems that no investor is willing to take on a municipal deployment as a straight investment. Even the WISPS that are successful hide in the nooks and crannies of remote areas where wired service can’t compete. These areas are slowing drying up in the US as population increases, which means wired services eventually come into the area. I have seen reports where these are the only place that can be made profitable for wireless. In other countries, wireless is highly preferable where there is hardly any wired infrastructure or where theft (of wire) is a bigger problem.

Most hardware manufacturers aren’t helping things by promoting the profitability of municipal wireless. The problem, and I completely understand it, is that municipal deployments don’t use enough hardware to justify a low cost. For example, if our 20-mile area had 32 access points (APs) per square mile (I’m jacking up the number simply for effect), then the total number of radios is 640. If those radios cost $100 per unit as I have proposed, the total sale is a pathetic $64,000 by mesh radio standards. Consider a 50% gross profit and the manufacturer only makes $32,000. To generate a decent amount of revenue, the manufacturer needs to sell about 5 cities per month. This is not going to happen.

Now raise the price of the APs to $1000, and the project cost just went to $640,000 with the manufacturer making about $320,000. Do six of these a year, and you have the start of a profitable operation. Take it to another level by raising the price per AP to between $2,000 and $12,000 and the numbers are staggering. This is why mesh radios cost so much and why there is no motivation for the mesh vendors to reduce the price of their products. As long as government is around to buy their equipment, these products are not going to get cheaper. In reality, I can’t blame these companies as I’m all for profit and if this provides them the highest profit potential, so be it. This just means there are market holes. This is also why my focus on profitability doesn’t include most of these products any longer.

Several companies have the capability to embrace this potential market quickly while the window is still open and can turn a very good profit if approached correctly. For example, SkyPilot ported their firmware to use lower cost CPE devices from Ubiquiti. The goal was the firmware licensing generated more revenue. That was a phenomenal idea and I was ready to jump on the bandwagon since their firmware is extremely solid. Unfortunately, they tied it to their legacy 12Mbps AP product that greatly limited total throughput and increased the cost 50-100% per square mile. 12Mbps just doesn’t work for me any longer with the advent of HD video and video streaming now the norm.

MeshDynamics went even further. Mesh could use the bullet radios as APs for example. This prompted me to use them in a local bid situation. It was a great move except they haven’t moved further into the 802.11n products yet. At this point, it’s necessary to have an 802.11n product in this market (see the article on the need to use 802.11n in outdoor WiFi networks).

Smart Grids are also coming along at just the right time for the market to see a resurgence in wireless mesh networks. A smart grid is a small piece of a large pie. If a city is spending $100-$300 per house for a wireless meter and the city has 20,000 homes, then $100K per square mile isn’t a big issue, especially since the revenue per house is somewhere around $30-$100 per month. Utilities are looking at a 10-year ROI and $2,000,000 spread out over 20,000 homes for 10 years works out to less than $1 per month per household. Don’t think that the Smart Grid operators are going to let you watch the NFL package on your phone over WiFi. Security issues and absolutely no financial motivation to open that network up to public WiFi kills that idea before it starts. I think Burbank may have that option, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get many cities to open that up. The Stuxnet worm also has a lot of people running scared in the SCADA industry unless you are a centrifuge in Iran. In that case, you are running like a cheap Rolex knockoff, way faster than you should.

The future of public wireless

So where does that leave those of us preaching that wireless technologies can compete with wireline services? We first had to figure out how to get the capex and operating expense down. Then we had to improve performance. As an engineer and business owner, I used this series “Tales from the Towers” to demonstrate both those solutions. However, those were technical and financial. A stark reality remains: either the city or the power companies own the vertical assets and you must work with them or use a relay methodology off of individual clients.

So is it possible to get two systems, public and private, to exist in the same town? That’s going to be difficult at best, although not impossible. It’s better if companies and local work together but because of what happened in the early days of municipal mesh, that’s going to be like convincing the Democrats not to raise taxes. This is especially true if private firms try to get the municipality to pay for some of the infrastructure. Still it is worthwhile getting the private sector and government to work together and in some place, they have succeeded.

Getting wireless vendors to work together

Wireless frequencies are a fixed asset. With a 20MHz wide channel we only have 7-8 useable 20Mhz frequencies in 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz. That means for 360 degree coverage in 2.4GHz which usually only uses 3 channels, we need three 120 degree sector antennas. However, let’s say we want six 60 degree antennas instead to reduce the noise and increase gain and we don’t have a beam-forming option yet. This is the methodology that Motorola uses. That means 2 radios have to be on the same channel. If these antennas are on a pole, two APs on the same frequency are going to interfere with each other. This is where GPS synchronization pulls a Superman act and saves the day.

GPS synchronization gets the AP to talk to satellites, defines a timed reference point, and then unlike Congress, gets all the APs to work together for the common good. The common good in this case is to make sure that all radios transmit and receive at exactly the same time. The result is that two radios that are within a few feet of each other on the same pole won’t be transmitting and receiving at different times. This allows frequency reuse without cutting the throughput. Theoretically, a pole could have 10 APs on the same channel, each with 36 degree sectors. Okay, I’m getting into beam-forming at that level but there is a difference.

Beam-forming is one processor/antenna defining several directional signals to create PTP connections with clients. GPS synchronization allows several APs, thus multiplying total throughput, on a pole and then use whatever antennas are needed for the application. If mixing sector antennas and directional antennas is appropriate, then GPS synchronization allows that without causing interference between the APs.

Where I’m going with this is it’s now possible to assign one channel to one party and a second channel to a different party and neither party really gets hurts by the redundancy. That would be as opposed to a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) methodology which is where Motorola and Ubiquiti WISPs are heading now. GPS synchronization is a proprietary technology which means Ubi and Moto aren’t going to be working together. I don’t see either company going out of their way to make that happen, so plan accordingly.

The fake promise of 4G technology

Two more quick things before I have to get some real work done today. Let’s start with xG Technology which is a fascinating study in how investors put money into technology that clearly violates accepted rules of wireless. It’s the wireless version of snake oil. The first clue that something fishy is going on is that they wouldn’t release technical data. In this case however, it was the engineers who have violated the old wives tale that engineers never lie. The fantasy that was xMax has now gone the way of Santa Claus (I had to get a holiday reference in there somewhere) and we now know it was never real, regardless of how many baloney patents were filed.

The reality is that xMax is simply a narrow-band 900Mhz frequency hopping radio. Oh wait, that’s what it is today since the original concept never worked to begin with, or did it? It got investor money and market cap into the 1.5 billion dollar area. xG finally released a product which is a generation behind 802.11n protocol and several times slower. I’m just ticked off at the engineers who have now damaged the profession. The stockholders will handle the legal stuff with the company. What’s really sad is the US military bought this bogus product which provides more legitimacy and rewards the concept of bait and switch.

How about simply modifying a 900MHz 802.11n AP with a proprietary frequency hopping firmware for oh, I don’t know, for $200 per AP. Wait, that product exists. Yes, the hopping rate is different but that’s a simple firmware modification. Hmmm, $200 versus the cost of an xG base station. That would be as opposed to the original price point of the xMax base station of $350,000. Wow, I have heard of techonology getting cheaper but…. By the way, the cognitive feature could be handled simply with a second or even a third AP sniffing which drives the price to $400.

Affordable mobile WiFi: is this possible?

The last is the mobility component. Several vendors have mobility as part of their product line. BelAir, Tropos, and others have fast handoff capability for moving vehicles. To accomplish this, they developed proprietary extensions to the 802.11 communications protocol. I’ve been working on Guerilla WiFi accomplishing the same thing. I’ve proposed using a Pepwave Max Mobile router which has built-in WiFi. It allows up to 3 paths to create a VPN tunnel back to a central location. You have to use a Peplink router on the other end but it works pretty well. I’ve tested it with EV-DO and GE-MDS Mercury radios for my dual-paths. You can even add the internal 2.4GHz b/g WiFi card for 3 paths if it can find an AP to connect to.

However, the cost of this setup starts heading north of $10K per car. I wanted Guerilla WiFi to have the same capability at a much lower cost. I’ve come close with some caveats. Pepwave makes the CarFi which works pretty well at slow speeds (sub 25) or when parked. It takes 3-5 pings to reconnect or about 5 seconds on average. Not bad but still slow. Using the same radio on both sides such as the Ubiquiti Bullet takes slightly longer. However, a solution is forthcoming which means Guerilla WiFi should have a 50ms handoff pretty soon. I’ll keep you updated after I get to test further. As it stands today, if police can forgo connectivity above 25mph, then a $10,000 per square mile system and a $600 cost in the car gives them 100% outdoor coverage with 1-60Mbps of bandwidth.

Check out the new sections on Muniwireless that focus on optimizing enterprise and public networks for smart phones and tablets. We will cover some recent testing there.