Shared Community WiFi Networking Blog From A Toronto Co-op ISP

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Letter from Dallas Muniwireless

Robert Ramsay is grad student at U of T and a great guy I met last year at the MuniWireless conference in Santa Clara.

He is visiting the MuniWireless conference that's on in Dallas this week, and is reporting back to everyone stuck here in icy Toronto. City-wide WiFi is really big in the US, partly because of the lack of competition for home internet access-- nothing like the Wireless Nomad project is possible in the US since the laws were changed a couple of years ago. Anyway, enough intro: here's Robert!

March 6, 2007, Dallas, Texas
Robert Ramsay

These conferences aren't the same without Wireless Nomad in attendance, for two reasons. One, small community networks are always underrepresented. Two, there's no one here to point out the insularity of the muni wi-fi movement, specifically that the obstacles faced by American municipalities (and the muni-corporate hybrid entities that are increasingly the norm) are highly contextual and contingent. As American initiatives move slowly forward, haunted always by the spectre of decreasing global competitiveness, cities in other parts of the world speed ahead, unencumbered by the kinds of concerns that impede progress in the States. As Esme Vos eloquently pointed out in her keynote yesterday, in a country where cities often find plenty of money and support for 200 million dollar sports arenas, that a 20 million dollar city-wide wireless broadband network is considered an impractical expense confuses and confounds.

I can report on two significant trends in muniwireless that are reaching maturity in the conference rooms here in Dallas. First, while the kinds of cities that are planning networks and the reasons they are planning them are becoming more diverse, the business plans are becoming less so. The sun seems to have set on the original Philadephia model, which envisioned a publicly owned network anchored by free areas. Now, public-private partnerships are the name of the game, and striking the most beneficial one is the goal. An interesting residual of the Philly model remains, though -- the idea of "free". However, whereas "free" used to refer to the cost of the network to the user, now "free" refers to the cost to the city. More and more RFPs ask for vendor-financed networks -- economic development without cost, akin to what geographer Jamie Peck has described as an urban cargo cult. Get someone else to build it, and they (businesses, knowledge workers, tourists, wealthy residents, corporate HQs, etc.) will come.

The second theme is community benefits. Again, Philly played a role here, establishing an expectation that a municipal network provide positive externalities for the residents, at all socio-economic scales. A concern for digital inclusion remains, but it has become more sophisticated. Access and connectivity are not enough, of course, and must be accompanied by the hardware, software, and wetware that make access and connectivity valuable. Similarly, those who already have access but are impeded by throttled broadband capacity may find themselves on the wrong side of another digital divide. Hence, Karen Archer Perry spoke of the sliding scale of digital inclusion: for those who have no access, that is obviously the place to start; for those who have access but do not have the speed and capacity to operate the applications they need to perform their work (or leisure), increased upload/download limits and higher capacities are the way forward. The duopoly system in the States is unprepared to address this problem currently, as the telcos have no incentives to increase access and capacity at the rate it is growing in Europe. Vos, again, pushed for a wholesale model, where the telco provides the network for a competitive ISP market wholesale. If a user finds that one ISP is providing access selectively, that user can change to another competitively priced ISP on the same network. This would also, incidentally, render irrelevant the network neutrality debate.

At events like this, it is often difficult to distinguish what is thoughtful discussion and what is a sales pitch, but there are some visionaries, like Vos and Perry, who can be counted on to push the limits of what is considered possible in muni wi-fi. Let's hope they aren't silenced by a lucrative contract to design the next top-down metropolitan network or something.


Blogger Damien said...

thanks, Robert!

It really is interesting to see how Internet access is falling behind in the United States, and there's this sort of blindness about the impact the regulatory changes had on the direction home Internet access is taking down there.

I'm not sure the wholesale model really takes care of net neutrality completely, but I think it's pretty safe to say it's a good start.

I guess in the end there is no such thing as a "neutral" network, just different kinds of networks, each with its own consequences and advantages. Here in Canada were pretty lucky, with a whole bunch of DSL resellers, strong competition from the cable companies, and the possibility of WiFi and WiMax adding something to the mix.

7:42 PM, March 08, 2007


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