To anyone who attended the Wi-Fi Planet show in Baltimore earlier this month, it should come as no surprise that wireless networking is really catching on. For that matter, it should come as no surprise to anybody who's been awake for any length of time over the past four or five years. But the full implications of the wireless networking revolution are only just coming to light.
These networks are capable of providing Internet access on a municipal scale and for a relatively low cost. Now, with the advent of Voice over IP services, there's a strong possibility that a well-managed wireless network could support voice communications, VoIP over Wi-Fi, or as some people are already calling it, Vo-Fi.
This is where the revolution really begins, and it will undoubtedly lead to casualties. The local telephone exchange companies are heavily invested in their special-purpose wire networks. These telcos are already yielding markets to cellcos, who can provide similar voice services and other benefits, such as mobility and no extra charge for long-distance calls. With VoIP providers, both telcos and cellcos are giving more of their voice market to cable Internet service providers. A wireless mesh network covering a metropolitan area would not only provide yet another way around the telcos' wire-based data networks, it would also provide a platform for phone service.
To listen to the buzz around Wi-Fi Planet, you'd think that the notion of yielding another inch is driving telcos berserk. In one keynote speech, David Isenberg of isen.com described them as "addicted to their special-purpose network" and "like mastodons huddling together."
Such rhetoric was a great crowd-pleaser in what was obviously a partisan group (except for the attendees who work for phone companies, of course). But the battle lines are being drawn, and the opening shots have been fired. And the telcos are sure of one thing: They don't want another large incumbent power horning in on their territory. The one thing they want to avoid is having government getting in on the act. So while municipalities are sending out requests for proposals on city-sponsored wireless metropolitan area networks, or MANs, the incumbent network providers are running to state and federal governments to push through laws that forbid cities from going any further.
Let's stifle innovation
A wireless mesh network covering a metropolitan area would not only provide yet another way around the telcos' wire-based data networks, it would also provide a platform for phone service.
At the moment, there are laws on the books in several states that limit the ability of local governments to provide any kind of broadband Internet access. Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin to be exact. And bills are currently going through the process in eight other states. The provisions of these laws vary, of course, but in general they are aimed at limiting a municipality's ability to provide its citizens with wireless broadband access.
At this point, the battle is going national. Pete Sessions of Texas introduced a bill to the Committee on Energy and Commerce on May 26 with a gloriously 1984-newspeak title: Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act (HR 2726). This short Act proposes an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 (47 U.S.C. 253) forbidding any state or local government and "any entity affiliated with such a government" from providing "any telecommunications, telecommunications service, information service, or cable service in any geographic area...in which a corporation or other private entity...is offering a substantially similar service."
It's hard to argue in favor of increasing the government's capacity to compete with private enterprise, of course. That's not how capitalism is supposed to work, and in these broad strokes, it's hard to argue against HR 2726. But governments are constantly interfering with the way in which businesses work (antitrust lawsuits and corporate tax breaks spring to mind), so it's a little disingenuous to say that this country is only about a free market economy. And it's all the more disingenuous when the bill is ostensibly about promoting innovation.
At this point, the real questions are these: Who's best able to implement these networks? Who's best motivated? And who is best equipped to maintain them in the long term?
Why so? Because the real innovations in recent years have not come from massive industries who invested too heavily in their own networks. They have come out of people taking advantage of insidious government-sponsored networks, such as the Internet and the global positioning system. Imagine if Rand McNally and ADC had sued the government to prevent trucking companies and consumers from using the DoD's satellite navigation system. You'd be spending more on consumer goods and gasoline because the trucking industry would be wasting fuel making wrong turns. Or if CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy had pushed a bill through in 1993 preventing the use of the hypertext transfer protocol, a.k.a. HTTP, in areas that were already served by a similar commercial service, you'd be reading CNET stories on a CompuServe Extended Services Channel at a surcharge of $4.80 per hour over your monthly access fee. Senators Lautenberg and McCain clearly recognize this, and so they have drafted an opposing bill
to attach to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Calling it the Community Broadband Bill of 2005, Lautenberg and McCain undermine the authority of restrictive laws, with their broad opening statement "No State statute, regulation, or other State legal requirement may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting any public provider from providing, to any person or any public or private entity, advanced telecommunications capability or any service that utilizes the advanced telecommunications capability provided by such provider." In other words: You can prevent cities from competing, but you can't just stop them from providing their citizens with valuable services.
So is municipal wireless networking really as revolutionary as launching a constellation of satellites into orbit around the Earth so that truckers and Lexus drivers can have their dashboards tell them when to turn? It could be.
Mesh networking isn't like plugging in hundreds of 802.11g access points to a central backbone of T1 cable. It allows wireless access points to route data from point to point, making hops around congested areas or holes in the network. Mesh is intelligent traffic management, but without wires. And without wires, it's cheaper to implement and maintain. For example, according to mesh vendor Tropos Networks, the average cost per user on a five-year rollout of its MetroMesh network is $6.70 (or $9.14 if you factor in depreciation), compared to $16.88 for DSL ($22.14 with depreciation).
If the concept of rerouting data in a meshlike network sounds familiar, it should. The Internet works similarly, but on a different scale. And just as the Internet was an idea that was ready to take off decades ago, large area mesh networking has taxied into position on the runway and is ready to fly.
At this point, the real questions are these: Who's best able to implement these networks? Who's best motivated? And who is best equipped to maintain them in the long term? If you can honestly answer "the local government" to all three questions, then you should oppose HR 2726. If you can wholeheartedly answer SBC, Verizon, or some other local carrier company, walk up to Pete Sessions, shake his hand, and say "Good man!" You should be able to find him where all the other telco alumni hang out. Before entering Congress and introducing the bill, Sessions spent more than 16 years at the Bell Labs in New Jersey and served as a district marketing manager for SBC in Dallas.
Is Matt Lake caught up in his own mesh? Let him have it in the TalkBack section below.