Why Wi-Fi Performance Varies Greatly

Why can Wi-Fi be so great in some places but so awful in others? (Ahem... Hotels.) Time to stop imagining Wi-Fi as magic and instead think of it just as a means of taking one connection and sharing it among many people without wires.

If you take a ho-hum connection and share it with 10 people, it becomes a bad connection. On the other hand, if you take a great connection and share it with those same 10 people, they will be very happy surfers. As Benoit Felten recently told us, the best wireless networks have been built in cities with the best wired infrastructure.

Wi-Fi still has hiccups but they are well worth it for convenience, mobility, and ubiquity. In a recent GigaOm article, Stacey Higgenbotham detailed additional reasons that not all Wi-fi is created equal.

Higgenbotham lays out the limitations of Wi-fi and breaks down the technology's touchiness into four main factors. She addresses the issue specifically for travelers. From the article:

Backhaul: For most Wi-Fi is their access to the internet, but it’s actually just a radio technology that moves information over the air.

Density:…the more people you add to a network — even if those people are just checking their Facebook page — the worse the network will perform.

Movement: Wi-Fi connectivity is designed for fixed access, meaning the radios stay put...when you try to jump from hot spot to hot spot problems occur.
...
Device: Newer phones and tablets are supporting a dual-mode Wi-Fi radio, which means they can hop from the 2.4 Ghz band to the 5 GHz band….now with phones like the latest iPhone that have dual-band support, you may hop to another band only to find a bunch of other users.

Higgenbotham doesn't have the answers on how to improve service, but she offers practical advice:

Given these constraints, it hopefully makes a little more sense when you can’t download a movie while on Amtrak or your Facebook video keeps buffering as you surf on the jetway. Unfortunately, with so many variables, there’s not a lot that the Wi-Fi Alliance or even the hot spot provider can always do. If there’s a business case for faster backhaul and a better managed network, the provider will make it happen. But in places like a doctor’s office or free hotel Wi-Fi where that economic incentive isn’t always clear, they may not. And for crowded planes and trains, the solution may just be for users to grin and bear it.

There you go, it isn't magic. But we can do much, much, better if we recognize the incredible value of being able to connect anywhere with devices of our choosing is worth much more to us than it is to cable and telcos who only about the maximum we are willing to pay to live in that world.

This is an infrastructure and the communities that can ensure residents and businesses have access to the networks they need at affordable prices will thrive.

New Fact Sheet: Community Broadband and Public Savings

We have already published a fact sheet on the critical role community broadband plays in job development. Now, ILSR presents a collection of how commnity owned broadband networks save money for local government, schools, and libraries while providing cutting edge services. The Public Savings Fact Sheet is now available.

Though schools, libraries, and other community anchors need access to faster, more reliable networks, the big cable and telephone companies have priced those services so high that they are breaking the budget. But when communities create their own connections, affordable high capacity connections are only one of the benefits. A community owned network offers the promise of self-determination -- of upgrades on the community's time table and increased reliability for emergency responders.

The Public Savings Fact Sheet is a great piece to share to mobilize other members of your community. Share it with decision makers and use it to start meaningful conversations. Distribute it widely and often.

We are always developing new resources. If you have an idea for a new fact sheet, we want to hear it.

Welcome to The Gigabit Club, BTES!

Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES) announced November 19th that it now has the capability to offer 1 Gbps service. While the BTES rates do not reflect a standard cost for the service yet, 1 Gbps is offered as an option to businesses and households.

From the BTES press release:

"Bristol now has one of the fastest, totally built out networks in the United States. To give an example of how fast, you can download about two hours of video or upwards of 200 songs in just six seconds," said Dr. Michael Browder, CEO of BTES. "For our residential customers, that means one person in the household can download a movie, while another is playing an online game, while another is watching an HDTV program – all without slowing down any of the activities. For our business customers, it opens the way for transporting and accessing 'big data', which is critical for economic development of the area."

The product is already being used by local students. A nearby elementary school is combining the 1 Gbps service with SMART Board Technology and participating in virtual field trips around the globe. Twenty eight-year-olds recently "visited" Egypt for a class on the pyramids with the help of an on-site pyramid tour guide. Gee, second grade was not all that memorable when I was a kid, but it sure would be these days!

We are always pleased to learn of significant strides made by municipal networks and want to thank Bernie Arnason from Telecompetitor for covering this story. We also want to congratulate BTES for their entry into the Gigabit Club!

Fibrant Network Gains Subscribers Despite Technical Difficulties

As we emphasize time and time again, communities build their own networks because they have to, not because they want to. North Carolina's Fibrant network in Salisbury is no exception and a recent technical headache is a reminder that no network is built without problems developing.

Fortunately, Salisbury's strong reputation for providing great, local customer service is helping as it deals with service interruptions that are the fault of the gear that runs the network. 

According to an Emily Ford article in the Salisbury Post, there have been several outages this month. While some outages are attributed to unreliable access gear, the city is still investigating to determine what other factors continue to cause problems. The network currently serves 2,160 subscribers, with 220 of them being commercial customers.

A November 9th Post article on an earlier outage, noted the problem with faulty equipment. A statement from Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury also attributed the outage to a lack of redundancy, which has since been repaired.

While Zhone has been the access gear supplier, Fibrant is now testing Calix equipment. Calix has long been a favored choice among community networks and has a very solid reputation. This is a reminder to communities of the importance of due diligence in choosing vendors -- make sure to talk to other community networks about their experiences with vendors. All equipment is subject to failure, so a key question should be how quickly different vendors respond with solutions to problems.

This technical problem comes on the heels of political problems as Salisbury has been targeted by Time Warner Cable for attacks. Readers will recall how Time Warner Cable successfully pushed the Legislature to pass H129 in 2011, a bill to neutralize publicly owned networks

Even though there have been recent outages, more people continue to take the service than to drop it. From the Ford article:

The week before the outage, 23 new subscribers signed up.

"Despite the outage, our customer base has grown," [City Manager Doug] Paris said, crediting Fibrant staff's dedication to customer service.

Jury said Fibrant's trials are to be expected, especially with a network built from scratch.

A 24-year veteran of the cable industry who took over Fibrant in March, Jury said Salisbury's network is so advanced he refers to it as "bleeding edge."

With no blueprint to follow, Fibrant is breaking new ground, he said.

 

We Can't Shop Our Way to a Better Economy

Our colleague at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Stacy Mitchell (too brilliant to be a relation of mine), recently gave an incredible presentation that focuses on some of the threats to our economy and how we can build stronger, more resilient communities.

She doesn't discuss broadband explicitly, but much of her critique of the largest corporations in banking and the food system applies to the big cable and telephone companies. Highly recommended.

Video: 
See video

Community Broadband Bits 23 - Harold Feld from Public Knowledge

One hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt and AT&T agreed to the Kingsbury Commitment, Harold Feld joins us on Community Broadband Bits podcast to explain what the Kingsbury Commitment was and why it matters. In short, AT&T wants to change the way telecommunications networks are regulated and Harold is one of our best allies on this subject.

AT&T is leaning on the FCC and passing laws in state after state that deregulate telecommunications. Whether we want to deal with it or not, these policies are being discussed and consumer protections thus far have taken a beating. This interview is the first of many that will help us to make sense of how things are changing and what we can do about it.

We also discuss the ways in which the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission spurred investment in next-generation networks by blocking the AT&T-T-Mobile Merger on anti-trust grounds.

Harold is senior Vice President of Public Knowledge and writes the Tales of the Sausage Factory blog.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Raleigh Plans Hobbled by State Ban on Municipal Networks

A recent article and video from Government Technology highlights the ambitious plans of Raleigh to harness the Internet to improve its attractiveness to forward-looking companies.

Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable convinced North Carolina's legislature that communities could not be trusted with the decision over whether it was a wise decision to invest in telecommunications networks.

So despite Raleigh's smart plans to build a fiber optic infrastructure that could be used to connect local businesses and spur new enterprises, it is prohibited from doing so. It can still offer services for free, which is why it can and does offer free Wi-Fi in some areas of town, but it cannot offer the services that would be most beneficial to the kind of companies that are most drawn to the Research Triangle Park area.

We look forward to a North Carolina that recognizes these decisions should be made at the local level, not by lobbyists working the state or federal capitals. But until then, we'll have to celebrate the jobs created by municipal networks in other states, where communities have the power to determine their own digital futures.

Los Alamos County, New Mexico, Asks Residents for Input

Los Alamos County is commonly known as home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It may soon also be home to an incredible next-generation network owned by the community. 

New Mexico's Regional Economic Development Initiative (REDI) received BTOP funding to construct a middle-mile fiber network connecting anchor institutions in Rio Arriba, northern Santa Fe, and Los Alamos Counties, along with the City of Espanola, and Pueblos of Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Tesuque. REDI is also working with local coops and with municipal utilities to bring the network across the northern part of the state.

Los Alamos County is expanding from the middle-mile network in anticipation of bringing fiber to every premise in Los Alamos county, about 8,900 homes and businesses. The design for the project is 90% complete and cost estimates are around $61 million.

While initial possibilities included cost projections for 100 Mbps and 300 Mbps connections, the County is pursuing 1 Gbps connectivity after early debate. From an April, 2011 article in the LAMonitor.com:

“These are immediate local uses for the infrastructure. But it’s also a long-term need,” [Tobey] Johnson, [managing partner of the Broadband Planning Group] said. “When you look at making this type of infrastructure investment in your community, it’s essential that the infrastructure’s going to be utilized for the next 30 years. So while there might be a handful of examples for uses today, how will it be used five years from now, 10 years from now? How will it be used locally in the community? How will it be used to connect the community to the outside world? A lot of those advances are still coming down the road, but we feel the best starting point for infrastructure is to look at gigabit speeds.”

The network will be open access with the hope of creating meaningful competition for consumers in Los Alamos County. At this point, no financing mechanism is in place and the surveys include questions on the public's tolerance for debt on the project.

As the county begins to formulate a business plan, they are now conducting research directly with the public. According to the Los Alamos Daily Post:

As part of this survey, the County is interested in conducting market research to assess demand and interest in broadband services, as well as explore preferences regarding methods of financing the CBN project and willingness to pay for the various costs to install and operate the network.

The surveys will be conducted at Time Out Pizza in White Rock, the Mesa Public Library, The Coffee House and The Reel Deal Theater. The in-person surveys are in addition to the telephone surveys that were conducted in September. The survey should take less than 3 minutes to fill out.

The face-to-face surveys will supplement telephone surveys conducted in September. Project IT Manager, Estevan Gonzales, tells us the business plan may very well be completed by the end of the year.

For more details on this project, visit Los Alamos County's Communuity Broadband Network page, where the County provides links to documentation from the beginning of the process.

Community Broadband Bits 22 - Jason Grey from Danville, Virginia

While I was in Danville, Virginia, for the Broadband Community Magazine Economic Development Conference, I had a chance to sit down with Jason Grey, nDanville Network Manager. This interview is our 22nd episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Jason and I met five years ago when I first visited Danville to learn about its municipal open access fiber-optic network. Danville is located in southern Virginia and was hit hard by the demise of tobacco and the loss of manufacturing jobs. But the municipal utility loaned itself enough capital to build a fiber network connecting the schools -- by provisioning its own service, they were able to pay back the loan, make contributions to the general fund, and still have enough money left over to expand the network to connect local businesses.

The network has been a tremendous success, attracting new employers and helping existing businesses to expand. And the network is just starting to connect residents in a few neighborhoods. Read our stories about nDanville.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Upcoming National Conference for Media Reform - Great Deal

Free Press is hosting the next National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) in Denver, April 5-7. Though the panels are not finalized, it is safe to assume that we will have a few on broadband and telecommunications policy. That's why I just registered for it and will undoubtedly be speaking on one or more sessions.

For a few more days, you can register for this conference at a remarkable rate - just $95 for the whole thing! Register here.

I always meet really inspiring people at NCMR and I expect this year to be one of the best. Denver is a great town and I expect people from Longmont to be there, talking about how they beat Comcast in a referendum where Comcast dropped $400,000 to protect its monopoly.

I can't overstate how much stronger our movement is when we come together to inspire each other and strategize face to face. I hope to see you there.