Municipal wireless' interesting model



It doesn't take much to set up a wireless network in your house - a wireless router, one or two PCs with wireless network adapters, and a cable or DSL connection to the Internet.

The same goes for businesses.

Restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, airports and others have set up thousands of wireless "hotspots" for travelers over the last few years.

Now local governments are getting into the act. Dozens of them are proposing free or low-cost wireless public networks in downtown business districts, neighborhoods and ultimately, entire cities.

Annapolis will be in the forefront of that movement Saturday when it officially unveils its own citywide wireless network - which is already running in downtown areas and should be available everywhere by summer's end.

What makes the Annapolis offering unusual is that it won't cost taxpayers a cent to build or use - or so officials hope.

Annapolis Wireless Networks, a small local outfit, is building the network on its own hook and plans to make money by selling advertising links on a Web page that pops up when each user logs on.

Other small cities, such as St. Cloud, Fla., and at least a dozen larger ones, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and Houston, are planning similar operations. But several factors make Annapolis an unusually good subject for this little experiment.

With a population of 36,000 nestled around the waterfront, Maryland's capital is a relatively compact city that doesn't require a major construction to bring everyone into the fold.

Demographically, Annapolis has its share of upscale neighborhoods, a large, white-collar weekday commuter crowd (thanks to state government), and a steady crush of weekend visitors.

They include thousands of well-heeled boaters who desperately need Internet access to check their stock portfolios at dockside. Annapolis also has its share of poverty - and neighborhoods where free Internet access will be particularly welcome.

Will this audience generate enough advertising to keep the service going? We won't know for months, or maybe years - till the network is built out and people learn about it get a chance to hop aboard.

What did surprise me as I looked into municipal wireless is how inexpensive these wide-area networks have become - cheap enough to support a variety of financing models and make broadband available in neighborhoods where there's no traditional wired service.

San Francisco, with roughly 744,000 residents (more people than Baltimore City, but not quite as many as Baltimore County) recently signed a deal for a two-tier municipal system.

It includes a free, advertising-driven wireless service managed by Google with a maximum speed of 300 kilobits per second - roughly the same speed and business model as the Annapolis network.

That's at least 5 times as fast as dialup service, but less than half the speed of the cheapest DSL service and less than 10 percent of cable's maximum. That makes it OK for Web browsing and e-mail, but not for streaming video or other bandwidth hogs.

For $20 a month, San Franciscans can subscribe to a more robust, EarthLink-based wireless service with speeds of up to 1 megabit per second. That's three times as fast as the freebie and a little faster than the low-end DSL service that phone companies offer in many areas. Although it's no match for cable's speed, it's more than adequate for casual Web users.

In Philadelphia, EarthLink will build the system with its own funds and share revenue with a nonprofit set up by the city to oversee the operation. Most subscribers will pay $20 a month, with a $10 fee for low-income residents.

Why are these services now so cheap? One reason is improved wireless hardware. Here's how it works:

In a standard home or small business setup, each PC with a wireless network adapter logs onto the Internet through a common transceiver called an access point. It's usually built into a router that has one or more antennae poking up. The router, in turn, connects to the Internet through a cable or DSL modem using old-fashioned wires.

The range of a home network is limited to 100 feet or so by the strength of the signal from the antenna, the construction of the home and interference from other gadgets such as microwave ovens and portable phones. It doesn't help if the guy next door has a wireless access point, too. It can't communicate directly with your access point - only with individual PCs and, of course, with the Internet.

This arrangement is fine for home systems - all the computers in the house are likely to be in range. But it's grossly inefficient and expensive if you want to extend the network to the whole neighborhood, or to a city. That's because each access point has to be hard-wired to the Internet.

To create wireless networks that "scale up," as they say in the trade, a major hardware maker called Nortel developed the solution Annapolis is using. Called a "mesh" network, it uses access points that communicate not only with PCs, but also with the access points around them.

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