Public Wi-Fi: Past its Prime?

Tim Wilson,
Network World Canada

For the average Internet user, wireless means Wi-Fi. Most routers used in offices and at hot-spots in local cafes and-libraries use Wi-Fi technology. However, the increasing development and use of the fledgling WiMAX technology has some questioning whether cities should invest in the older standard.

But to Norm Bogen, director of networking research at In-Stat, suggesting that public Wi-Fi networks are a waste of time and money because WiMAX is around the corner is a bit of a stretch.

"There is still a lot to be done in WiMAX," he said. "One of the reasons that-Wi-Fi mesh and Wi-Fi hotspots make sense is that there are literally hundreds of millions of devices today that are imbedded with this technology."

David Robinson, vice-president of business implementations for Rogers Communications, counters that over the long haul, WiMAX is simply the better technology for outdoor use, so there is little point in municipalities pursuing Wi-Fi.

"Wi-Fi was built to be an indoor LAN extension for a few hundred feet. There are a limited number of non-overlapping channels. This is not a flaw that has to be fixed-- this is a design feature."

Maybe so, but the fact is that present WiMAX offerings require either a portable modem dependent on its own power source (as in Sympatico Unplugged and Rogers Portable Internet) or, in the case of Bell WiMAX in Home, a fixed modem.

"You can't use those services in a park. You need to walk around with a modem looking for a place to plug in," says Dave Dobbin, president of Toronto Hydro Telecom.

Pricing and flexibility are also factors. Both Bell and Rogers require an upfront investment of C$100 (US$94) in a modem, with Bell's 512 Kbps service priced at C$45 a month, its 3 Mbps service at C$60 a month, and WiMAX in Home at C$65 a month. Rogers Portable Internet has a single C$50 a month fee.

By contrast, Toronto Hydro Telecom's One Zone offering seems designed for a more flexible business arrangement: customers can pay C$5 an hour, C$10 a day, or C$29 a month.

For his part, Toronto Hydro Telecom's Dobbin feels there is room for both technologies. "There are places where WiMAX makes more sense than Wi-Fi," he says, "specifically low-density metropolitan areas."

"This is not a technology argument, this is an adoption argument," says Dobbin. "We deployed the first large scale Wi-Fi metropolitan network in North America, and most devices are now pre-packed with Wi-Fi."

Robinson, who agrees that this is not necessarily an either-or discussion, nonetheless stresses that at the end of the day it's the long-term appropriateness of a given technology that has to be assessed.

"Infrastructure investments are capital-intensive," he says. "Wi-Fi is ideal for what it was designed for: indoor WLAN extensions. Providing a carrier-grade network is a different proposition. We can't charge people for a service that degrades in the middle of a building." Toronto Hydro Telecom could convert to the emerging 802.11n standard, but that would be a significant infrastructure investment that may not pay off.

Even with 802.11n, most analysts see an expiry date of sorts for outdoor Wi-Fi in the five-year range, when WiMAX takes over. However, Wi-Fi may still have legs as a cheaper, short-term access model for commuters, particularly given that carriers tend to want longer and deeper customer relationships.

Dobbin, who acknowledges that the service needs some augmentation, points to independent research firm Novarum's top ranking of Toronto among municipal Wi-Fi initiatives. "Our system is wide open without peer-to-peer blocks. We are only at four percent of capacity downtown. Wi-Fi may not go as far as WiMAX, but that forces us to provide intense coverage in the downtown core."

In-Stat's Bogen thinks that municipalities will continue to invest in Wi-Fi because WiMAX is still young. Devices with imbedded WiMax are not expected be available until late 2008, and even then will be in a minority of devices. "The exciting time for WiMAX is three to five years out," says Bogen. "Right now, Wi-Fi is unlicensed and cheap to deploy."

As well, Toronto Hydro Telecom's business model may serve it well over the long haul. "The majority of our users are not from the 416 (city of Toronto) area code," says Dobbins. "We have 40 percent monthly, 40 percent daily, and 20 percent hourly. A lot of our customers are 905 (suburban) commuters."

Copyright © 2007 PC World Communications, Inc.