Combination of Need, Cost and Innovations Are Rekindling the Muni Wireless Dream

The economics of wireless and the ability to deliver a gig makes the case for wireless/wired hybrid infrastructure.

by / August 10, 2016

Many are surprised by the news that Google is delaying some of its municipal fiber builds -- and speculation is building that the company is quietly upping its wireless game.

Those who've watched the municipal broadband space since the muni Wi-Fi days, however, aren't likely to be surprised by this. The reason? In 2004, Philadelphia's dream of building a citywide public Wi-Fi network captivated the country and started a wave of frenzied press releases and mayoral proclamations, and a handful of network buildouts. But alas, all went for naught.

Lately, however, a combination of need, cost and innovation is rekindling the dream.

In my most recent report, Urban Communities Need Better Broadband Too, one issue I address is that innovations in wireless technology have made it more viable for communities that want to build their own broadband networks. You can deliver hundreds of megabits, even a gig, through fixed wireless into urban and rural areas. The economics of wireless as well as the ability to deliver a gig makes the case for wireless/wired hybrid infrastructure — and Google is in the game.

Wireless and the hybrid infrastructure

Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) have been a fixture in the competitive landscape of rural America for quite some time. They have solid reputations for building out affordable infrastructure in hard to reach places. Some local governments have encouraged entrepreneurs to create WISPs — a tactic that also could work in urban areas.

In a city's “historic” urban core, there often are blocks of residential homes; half-mile or mile stretches of streets with offices, restaurants and retail stores; cross streets alternating between apartments; single-dwelling homes; and more retail outlets. In various areas of a city are low-income homes and likely public housing units where people who now have the biggest need for digital literacy reside.

“You have gentrification with businesses and commercial real estate interests coming into economically depressed neighborhoods buying up property, and before you know it, you have hybrid neighborhoods,” observes Ron Deus, CEO of regional NetX, a WISP located in Cleveland, Ohio. “As more businesses come to town, you can have reverse migration into the community of people wanting to work for some of those businesses.”

Wired, Wireless Leapfrogging

Learn more about the deployment strategy of leap-frogging wireless with wired being used by RS Fiber and other rural co-ops — a strategy that urban community networks are likely to replicate.

With this mix of residential and business establishments, it’s no easy feat to map broadband strategies to serve those in need. Budget conscious champions of public networks feel that proposals to build fiber everywhere to be a tough sell to local constituents. Maybe the hybrid urban core requires hybrid infrastructure.

Since Philly’s time in the spotlight, wireless tech has advanced to where we can get a gig speed with fixed wireless infrastructure — so like it or not, it’s time to talk about integrating wired and wireless.

Do people really care which pipe it is?

The RS Fiber co-op was formed to represent the communications interests of 10 Minnesota cities in Renville and Sibley counties. A fiber backbone will tie the 10 towns together, and each town will have Fiber-to-the-Premises. It will take three years to complete, so until then, the co-op will provide 25-megabit symmetrical wireless and telephone services from the backbone.

RS Fiber decided, based on the recommendation of its ISP, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that it would build a hybrid network.

“It was going to take three years to build out fiber to the larger towns and another two to three to build fiber to farms in the two counties,” said Mark Erickson, economic development director of Winthrop, Minn. “Hiawatha said they could build a 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless network that they would complete in six months while the fiber buildout takes place. This strategy was a stroke of genius.”

And this easily could become the norm in both rural and urban communities across the United States.

Though there will always be complaints about giving discounted services to low-income neighborhoods, elected officials will endure a less contentious environment with the less expensive price tag of a hybrid.

“And the end, cost will likely rule the day,” said Jaime Fink, CPO and co-founder of Mimosa, a vendor that champions a hybrid wired/wireless infrastructure. “Even with dig-once policies, there is still significant cost with laying fiber from the curb to individual residences or businesses. Wireless has its place with outdoor data communications. Our approach to spectrum sharing eliminates this problem, while simultaneously allowing us to deliver a gigabit to the home.”

And it’s not just cost measured in dollars but also in time. Google is finding that incumbents, by their anticompetitive nature, do whatever they can to prevent upstart competitors from gaining traction in various markets. Those delaying tactics can cost a company like Google or municipalities valuable time. Furthermore, Webpass has people skilled in working the municipal bureaucracies to gain access, as well as people skilled in construction, logistical implementation and several other skills, all of which adds to Google’s ability to move quickly.

In 2006, municipal Wi-Fi was the salvation of our cities. In 2009, fiber or wireless were the future, depending on your broadband religion. Last year, it was fiber or nothing. In the past few months, gig wireless is making hearts flip. It seems our industry forgets that individuals, businesses and organizations don’t care very much if Internet access arrives wirelessly or by wired connection as long as it is fast, reliable, secure and affordable. Hybrid networks have a seat at the broadband table. Deal 'em in.

Craig Settles Contributing Writer

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of Building the Gigabit City. He’ll be his Gigabit Nation booth at the Community Broadband Summit with his latest report, The Co-op’s Broadband Plan for Success.