Tech Notes

By J. Anthony Vittal

Universal WiFi: Coming to Your Town?

 I have written before about the prospects for universal WiFi—wireless broadband connectivity—but the future is arriving more quickly than anticipated. In mid-November, the City of Mountain View, California, the Silicon Valley home of Google, granted Google a five-year lease to install about 300 wireless radios on the city’s streetlight posts as the first step in offering city-wide wireless Internet service. Although it has yet to make a final decision, Google probably will be using WiFi technology. Google will make basic wireless broadband service available at no charge to anyone with the ability to connect to the network who registers for a free Google account, and it will offer enhanced service, with special features such as a higher bandwidth, for a fee. Google will provide all users with real-time local traffic condition information and will encourage users to secure their connections over a virtual private network. As a bonus for the city, all city employees will get a secure connection of their own. Google plans to start the build-out immediately, with construction expected to take about two months. Once the network is operating, it also will include wireless access to the Googlemobile, a mobile library the city is acquiring.

This may not seem like a big deal, but is an example of the kinds of public-private partnerships required for universal WiFi access. It also it provides a test bed for Google to iron out the wrinkles inherent in wide-area wireless networking. Google, which has admitted its desire to develop its own Internet network, is challenging the stranglehold that existing broadband operators (local telephone companies and cable services) have on the ISP market. If Google is to succeed in that challenge, it needs to be able to assure that its service will be reliable and trouble-free. Where better to prove the concept than in its own home town?

In the meantime, Google (among many others) also has submitted a bid to the City of San Francisco, which plans to offer universal broadband wireless access throughout the city. Ideally, San Francisco wants to offer free access to those unable to pay for it, and low-cost access (no more than $20 per month) for everyone else. San Francisco is considering various models, including managing the network itself, and leasing portions of the network to private providers who will be responsible for operating and maintaining their portions of the network and billing customers. San Francisco already offers free WiFi access to the Internet in Union Square, and it’s hard not to find a WiFi access point (“hot spot”) around the city. For example, in addition to my own, there are at least three secured and four unsecured hot spots regularly within range of my San Francisco high-rise apartment.

In Philadelphia, the city has contracted with Earthlink to provide city-wide wireless broadband access. Other cities are doing so as well, some on their own, some using private vendors. San Francisco, however, highlights some of the difficulties in deploying a city-wide wireless network. The hills, valleys, and high-rise buildings all are obstacles to the relatively weak radio signals broadcast by computers and hot spots. That means deploying more hot spots—both horizontally and vertically—to assure universally accessible signal. The multitude of existing hot spots already owned by individuals and businesses, all sharing the same 2.4 Ghz frequency spectrum, cannot interfere with the new municipal network, which also will operate on the same frequency spectrum. The new municipal network also will have to handle “hand-offs” from one hot spot to the next as a user moves across the city on public or private transportation, just like the cellular networks do. Then there is the infrastructure needed to connect these hot spots to each other and to the Internet—which probably will be partly wired and partly wireless. Technology will solve these problems, but they do exist and have to be addressed. Doing so will take time, but I expect that they will be solved and the network will be completely deployed and operating before the turn of the decade.

In time, wireless broadband access to the Internet will replace wired access in much the same way that cellular telephony is replacing wireline phones. Although we can expect opposition, including lawsuits, from the incumbent carriers, that only will delay deployment. The transition is inevitable. It’s even possible that Google will deploy its own Internet network, making wireless broadband access to the Internet universally available.

What’s happening where you live and work? Drop me a line and let me know. In the meantime, if you still are restricted to copper wire access to the Internet, you at least can look forward to the freedom of wireless access in the course of your travels.

Happy surfing.

J. Anthony Vittal is the General Counsel of Credit.com, Inc., in San Francisco, California. He is a member of the editorial board for the technology and practice guide issues of GPSolo and the Technology eReport and writes and lectures frequently on technology topics of interest to the legal profession. He can be reached by e-mail at tony.vittal@abanet.org.

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