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Open Wi-Fi possible in cities

20 June 2012, 14:52

Cape Town - Open high-speed networks for urban areas are possible, but the idea needs to take account a sustainable business model to contain costs, a wireless industry professional has said.

Some cities around the world are rolling out Wi-Fi networks as a way of ensuring that users can access mobile high speed data services, but faced a risk if there was mass adoption on a free model, Ruckus Wireless said.

"The challenge with that is that if you offer a good service, you're going to get more and more subscribers using your service and with it being Wi-Fi, the more people on that, the more it's shared by your customers. So ultimately your service is going to degrade," Michael Fletcher sales manager of Ruckus Wireless told News24.

Social network Mxit is in the process on rolling out free and open Wi-Fi in Stellenbosch, but Fletcher said the risk was that as more people used such a service, quality could degrade, forcing the operator to keep spending money to prevent collapse.

San Jose in California, a city of just under one million residents, offers free Wi-Fi but offsets the cost of the network with services that saves the city money.

Upfront cost

"Their angle is coming in that they're using the Wi-Fi mesh for video surveillance, for parking meters, for traffic fines. So where they're saving money not having to deploy those services with people, they're deploying the Wi-Fi mesh; anyone that wants to access it for data, can do that as well," said Fletcher.

In the Tswane Metropolitan Municipality, one could deploy Wi-Fi by installing access points at every traffic intersection so that people on the move would always be connected, but the plan would attract a significant upfront cost.

"The rule of thumb is that you're looking at somewhere between 15 to 20 and 30 to 40 access points per square kilometre," Fletcher said.

He added that the network would have to be robust to ensure that smartphones and mobile devices could access the network.

"If you have a consumer with an iPhone, although you can see the access point, you can't authenticate because of the transmission power on your iPhone.

"If you're going after the consumer market, you need to build your network that is robust enough so that you cater for all of them.

"If the consumer can't connect he's not going to raise it with Apple and say they should put a stronger radio in the iPhone. He'll say: 'Your service is rubbish.'"

High density

Wi-Fi networks are generally easy to deploy and may serve as a gateway technology while the rollout of high-speed mobile broadband like LTE continues to be delayed.

"Wi-Fi is a mesh mode. You can literally put an 'X' on the side of a building and someone who is capable of installing TV antennas - you can tell them to build this thing of the side of the wall and put power on it," said Fletcher.

He said that high density areas were better served with Wi-Fi networks and cited the example of South Korea. The Asian country is spending $44m to rollout a network that will give every citizen free high-speed internet access.

"In South Korea, you literally have a 10 000 people living in 1m² in terms of its density, whereas here it's a bit different. Being more sparsely populated makes it more expensive."

Ruckus said that the speed of Wi-Fi continues to accelerate.

"With Wi-Fi, from an access point, currently you're talking about 300mbps. With the new one coming next year, you're talking 900mbps from an access point and if you compare that to the GSM technology, you're quite a lot faster to start with," Fletcher said.

He conceded that the technology was contended bandwidth and that speed decreased as more users accessed the network, but dismissed suggestions that 3G was better.

"If you have two people on an access point with Wi-Fi, you're halving your throughput to each customer; the same applies for the other technologies as well."

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