Sunday, 7 August 2011

Wireless in the community

mobile computing
Prior to the widespread availability of ADSL, wireless Internet access was the viable interim solution for community networking projects to provide Internet access for homes in rural areas.

Now with mobile computing eclipsing fixed Internet access, wireless has changed from being a stop-gap to being a necessary service in it's own right.  Community networks still trying to compete with the big telcos in fibre deployment are running in last year's race, it's time to re-focus on what the community needs.

Community network projects are founded on the principle of filling in the gap between demand and supply, bringing broadband to rural areas where the incumbent claims there is no demand or there are insurmountable technical challenges.

Ten years ago there was some success in these projects - wireless access networks were built, demand stimulated and commercial viability demonstrated to such an extent that there is now widespread access of basic broadband and government willingness to fund universal access for the remainder.

Super high speed broadband and fibre-optics are the way of the future for fixed connectivity but there has been little success over the last two years for the community projects that have been trying to accelerate availability in their areas.  The telecomms incumbent has become much more adept at setting the agenda and keeping control on the market and government subsidy schemes which should be helping communities have simply resulted in delays and diversions.

But the game has changed - whilst the big boys are busy installing their fibre networks (which they will ration out in small doses) users are buying smart phones, tablet computers and Internet enabled mobile devices of all kinds.  For many people, accessing a moderate speed Internet service whilst out and about is much more useful than an upgrade from twenty to forty megabits download speed at home.

The new challenge for community broadband projects is to go back to the wireless towers and put in public access networks.  If every activist in the village installs a discreet omnidirectional antenna on their house, pub, shop or office we can have a  useful network that will be a generation ahead of what the established players are offering.

Ironically BT have already shown the way with their FON service built in to nearly three million broadband customers' home hubs.  What the community needs to do is offer a similar service but tailored for external coverage.

BT FON access is available on the basis of quid pro quo: if you offer FON from your home hub, you can access anyone else's FON when you're out and about.  Community networks could adopt a similar scheme - anyone who lives in an area where such a public access WiFi network has been established
should be able to roam onto any other participating community's service.

Mobile operator O2 have already anticipated that their customers get better use of their O2 smartphones when they have access to open WiFi networks and have started to roll out access in their shops and in third party venues.

Virgin Media have also identified the speed gap between home broadband and mobile 3G service and this month announced plans for a public wireless service in London.

Neither Virgin or O2 will cover rural areas so it is time again to fill in the gaps.

Community networks are about innovation, and wireless is where the frontier is.

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