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If Wi-Fi were like carpet

Mon, 04/30/2007 - 8:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President CBG Communications Inc.

I remember talking to my grandmother one summer before making the long trip to her house for a week’s stay, and she told me excitedly, “Wait until you see what we’ve done to the porch!” As a young boy, I’m imagining all sorts of things like a new porch swing, a screened-in area or even a new sunroom. Lo and behold, when I got there, what did I find but...carpet!? Yes, her front porch was entirely covered with indoor/outdoor carpet. In a rapid fire manner, she explained the wonders of this miracle floor covering that you could use on your porch but also in your basement; in your den, but also on your patio. Yes, this was some rugged stuff.

In The Loop Thomas G. RobinsonI think early on that a lot of wireless broadband proponents believed that they had a “miracle” technology that would make it relatively easy for them to charge into the broadband market and capture big chunks of consumers, wherever they were located–outdoors, indoors, stationary or on the move. As systems have continued to rollout and expand, it’s become painfully obvious though that it is not going to be a simple task.

Essentially, while outdoor coverage has been relatively easy to achieve in a cost-effective manner, getting at customers indoors has been significantly more difficult.

First, providing satisfactory signal strength within buildings has been problematic, due to everything from the materials that buildings are made of, to the proximity of the wireless access point (AP) to the building or room location, and the low-powered transceivers built into most wireless-enabled laptops.

For example, regarding building materials, dwelling units and businesses with stucco exteriors have encountered significant problems because the wire mesh typically used in stucco construction effectively blocks signals at standard frequencies used for Wi-Fi transport. Other types of building materials are more forgiving, but even in many of these cases, the signal strength diminishes markedly as you move toward the interior of the home.

Regarding laptop-based transceivers, these have typically been designed with enough signal output and receiver tolerance to access wireless routers within a dwelling or business, but not necessarily outdoor access points that are several hundred feet away. Taking laptops outside helps, but access may still be problematic if you happen to be at the edge point of several APs in a traditionally designed mesh network.

Like most things, if there is a technological problem, there is a technological solution waiting to be hatched, nurtured and sprung on the market. The most basic of these so far has been to provide signal boosters that can be added as an outboard device to existing laptops in order to enable them to properly access the network, even at minimal initial signal strength. Newer laptops will have an option to have higher powered transceivers built in.

Additionally, the latest wireless broadband system designs are now often doubling the number of APs versus designs of just a year ago, in order to provide better coverage indoors by being closer to the end user.

The issue for end users and providers in both cases then becomes the higher cost associated with these technological solutions. In the case of the signal booster, the end user often has to bear that cost such that the low-cost or no-cost service offered as an enticement by the wireless broadband provider suddenly has at least a one-time peripheral cost of $50 or more. For the wireless broadband provider, doubling the number of APs can correspondingly double the length of time for the provider to receive a satisfactory return on investment.

There are some other interesting and innovative solutions being pursued that ultimately may provide a different and more cost-effective answer to these current problems. For example, at least one group is working on an “inside-out” concept, where each end user would in effect become an access point that would allow a mesh to be developed between neighboring residences; in essence, establishing the wireless broadband equivalent of a peer-to-peer network.

Initially, for wireline providers, the problems noted above have been cheery news, because they mean that it will be difficult for wireless providers, at least for now, to compete with cable modem and DSL services indoors. These two established technologies currently dominate the indoor, high-speed broadband market and their relatively high price reflects that fact (the cost of broadband service is the number-one area of dissatisfaction among broadband consumers today). However, as time goes on, the wireline industry’s own experiences with technological challenges have taught it that the types of problems described above will be overcome, and the wireline industry will have to be ready to face broadband competition from wireless providers indoors.

Specifically, with technologies like mobile WiMAX and some of the other innovations mentioned above, wireless broadband systems will achieve capabilities similar to today’s cellular voice, as far as coverage and capacity for handling traffic. Similarly, cellular carriers will continue to make broadband strides, moving inexorably toward fourth generation (4G) technology, which will increase their data handling capacity and service provisioning capabilities.

The big question for wireline providers is potentially how they will do the flip side; in essence, going from providing indoor to also providing outdoor services. Will they do this by forging alliances with current wireless providers, as some in the cable industry have done? Will they pursue the quadruple play within their own corporate sphere, like companies such as Verizon are doing? Will they pursue the development of multiple wireless platforms, as AT&T is experimenting with? For some, will it mean a wireless extension of DOCSIS in a greater manner than just to provide cable modem services to remote customers?

These are all good questions with no easy answers. The only thing that’s certain, is that an answer must come, since the coming generation of broadband customers are certainly not homebodies. Finding the right way to meet their broadband needs as they move throughout their day could be the biggest thing since, well, indoor/outdoor carpet.

Thomas G. Robinson

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