Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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WiMAX - Metropolitan Area Networks

For years, wires have been the bane of my domestic existence. As an electronic musician and techie, I have had wires of every variety snaking throughout my home, getting underfoot and causing no end of head scratching to determine which of them is at fault in a given communications failure. It should be viewed as no surprise, therefore, that I was among the first to jump on the wireless networking bandwagon. To finally be rid of unsightly cables running under carpets and across sections of bare floor seemed like the best gift I could ever have received from the gods of tech. I felt truly emancipated!

For a long time, my home remained a virtual oasis in a desert of wireless networking traffic ... then my neighbours got religion. Now, on any given day I can see no less than 10 other wireless routers in my area, all crowded into the same narrow spectrum vying for their own piece of the 802.11 pie. With this burgeoning adoption of high speed Internet connectivity and WiFi, corporations and municipalities alike began to take notice. Why not deliver Internet services directly to the home in a manner that transcends the bonds of wired infrastructure?

The first city in the world to deploy wireless Internet access in such a manner was Zamora, Spain, followed closely by Grand Haven, Michigan. In Canada, Fredericton, New Brunswick bears the distinction of being the first to move towards total coverage, a project that is to be completed by the end of this year. Best of all, Fredericton's access is provided to its constituents by the municipality for free.

You may think, "I get my Internet access through my local cable company ­ what do I care if it's initially wireless or not if I can enable that functionality within the confines of my home?" The implications of metropolitan-wide wireless Internet access however, though not apparent at first blush, are far reaching indeed.

Having this persistent connection at our immediate disposal empowers the populace and negatively impacts the influence of major corporations and regulators. Media conglomerates are reduced in significance, telcos and cable companies are threatened, content access laws such as Canada's Broadcasting Act are ignored ... and this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, will I tune in to my local radio station to listen to whatever fare they decide to deliver to me that day, or will I instead select from among the thousands of specialized Internet-based channels that cater directly to the type of information or entertainment I am interested in? Will I simply trust what the news commentators tell me on my local television station, or will I decide for myself what to believe based on aggregated reports offering differing perspectives collected from throughout the globe? In fact, will I even bother sitting down to watch them rehash what I already know ... according to their schedule? Am I going to pay for a long distance call at home or am I going to use Voice over IP from wherever I happen to be? Will I be forced to pay for my Internet access from one of two sources (cable or DSL) or will my options be significantly more varied? I could go on and on, but I think you're beginning to get the picture.

The problems

To me, this all sounds great. However, the de facto monopolies in their respective areas will certainly not be going quietly into the night. In fact, industry-backed bills restricting municipalities from providing Internet access are being tabled all over the United States. In Texas, Bill HB 789 would impose one of the most draconian sets of regulations governing municipal involvement in communications by stating:

"A municipality or municipally-owned utility may not, directly or indirectly, on its own or with another entity, offer to the public a service as a network provider; or any telecommunications or network service, without regard to the technology platform used to provide the service." This in effect even restricts local governments from providing free Internet access within schools and libraries! On the other hand, how fair is it that municipalities can use public money to effectively eliminate existing private competition in the ISP realm? The fight concerning stewardship over Internet access has just begun and we should definitely be paying attention to our southern neighbours in order to ensure that reasonable solutions are applied here in Canada.

Finally, there are enormous security concerns in moving to a wireless-only network. Commonly available security measures such as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) in wireless routers provide laughable levels of protection ­ and that's assuming people even enable them! In my experience locally, the vast majority of users don't bother. Truth be told, given how easy WEP is to crack, they might be considered almost justified in their reluctance to complicate their home setups. By way of example, at a recent security conference in Los Angeles, a group of FBI computer cops cracked a 128-bit WEP encrypted network in under three minutes. A less sophisticated cracker might take a little longer ... but hey, he has all day ­ it's not like he has to break into your house to do it! Other common encryption schemes such as WPA (WiFi Protected Access), though superior, are still quite vulnerable, leading us to question the viability of this standard over the distances involved in metropolitan area networks.

The portents

What does the near future hold for city-wide wireless Internet access? Despite initial successes in Fredericton and some other small communities in Canada, I don't see metropolitan WiFi being offered in large urban centres any time soon. There are too many major players involved and too many millions invested in existing infrastructure to allow the apple cart to be so easily upset by this technology upstart. Perhaps too, given the associated privacy and security apprehensions, moving more slowly towards this eventuality will enable us to address these concerns and provide a better and more reliable service to all.

Sidebar

WiMAX (802.16) is a new standard that will provide the digital glue used to bind existing WiFi hotspots together into one cohesive network. Based on microwave technology, this new medium is capable of extremely high bandwidth and theoretical ranges of up to 50 km. Read a good synopsis at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wimax, or for complete coverage go to www.wimaxforum.org.

 

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