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Keys to Sparking a Muni Wi-Fi Revival

In an interview with AGL Small Cell Link, Ted Abrams, chief technology officer for Wi-Fi Wireless (WFWL), explained how his company’s WiFi My City program  will be able to deploy successful municipal Wi-Fi networks, while others have failed.

AGL Small Cell Link: What would you say to critics who bring up the history of failed muni Wi-Fi projects?



Abrams: “Municipal Wi-Fi systems are mostly known for their failures. Major metro areas, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Anaheim, Calif., and Portland, Ore., set out to provide Wi-Fi service to their citizens. Within years, sometimes months, the efforts were abandoned. Was this a flawed optimistic utopian gesture? The reason for their failures is more complex.

“Equipped with the best intentions, but without the right tools, these projects didn’t develop into sustainable ventures. If you look at Philadelphia’s efforts, it was spearheaded by experts, hard-working, skillful professionals, proficient in IP routing and Internet service providing — everything to do with the legacy approach to internet access. But, not the right business model, not the right partnership.”

AGL Small Cell Link: What is different now or better than it was in the past?

Abrams: “Now, technologies and market conditions are favorable for an innovative business model in combination with a partnership between the city, organizers of the project, technology vendors and wireless professionals.”

AGL Small Cell Link: What is your approach to the municipalities?

Abrams: “WFWL is busy in several areas of the nation, teaching communities what they can do to rationalize the chaos of public spectrum and make citywide wireless internet work.  WFWL believes that Internet access is as important to modern society as any public utility.  As with any other public utility, cities must be involved.  For the benefit of their residents, the starting point for each city is a partnership agreement with the Wi-Fi provider. Founded on that principle, the WFWL business model offers free Wi-Fi for every resident of the city, without ads.”

AGL Small Cell Link: How is Wi-Fi service evolving?

Abrams: “Voice services, carrier offload, location-based services, and sponsorships combine with the right business model to define a very positive future for public spectrum. Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp reflects a strategy to launch voice service, rumored to be implemented later this year. WFWL began offering voice service in the form of voice-over-Wi-Fi several years ago.”

AGL Small Cell Link: Why is RF engineering so important?

Abrams: “Expertise that sustains Tier I licensed wireless connections sets the standard.  Engineers and equipment vendors such as Alcatel Lucent or Ericsson make the magic of wireless a daily reality.  Projects that didn’t start with RF, didn’t consider the air link and network performance the way a wireless carrier does, the way traffic moves across the physical layer.  Radio system functionality in the physical environment was either glossed over, or manufacturers’ claims were accepted at face value.

“System design must incorporate plans for continuous improvement, evolving to keep pace with spectrum availability and technology evolution. Today, a starting point might be 802.11 u, ac, n and other standardized protocols, managed and maintained with the latest revision. Passpoint-certified equipment is the smart way to go for carrier offload capability.

“Professional RF engineers can optimize multiple spatial paths with multiple frequencies and multiple protocols at every antenna location. Across public spectrum, users can experience air link data rates above 50 megabits per second.  Attaching to every antenna location, gigabit Ethernet backhaul can guarantee that high speed wireless does not hit a bottleneck.  Personal cell technology recently in the headlines and in video demonstration depicts LTE user experiences – that WFWL designs can achieve with public spectrum.”

AGL Small Cell Link: How can citywide Wi-Fi be monetized?

Abrams: “Through an innovative business model.  While it is important that no one is blocked from access, tiered plans incorporating sponsored speed zones allow the provider to get paid.  Every resident of the city would be authorized for basic service; no charge to the user, no advertising.  Users who intentionally opt-in for sponsored service get a turbo boost in trade for an ad from that sponsor.   Subscription plans integrated into the model offer users VPN, or specialized services, or higher speeds without sponsorships.  Carriers’ subscribers would have access without ads through roaming agreements between the carriers and the Wi-Fi provider.”

AGL Small Cell Link: How does Wi-Fi fit into the other trends at work in the wireless world?

Abrams: “Wi-Fi and other public spectrum are essential to the network densification going on in the cellular world. There will be a coordinated HetNet integration with LTE and LTE-Advanced.  In that mix, Wi-Fi offload is absolutely fundamental. Everything in the Wi-Fi network must be ready for carrier-grade communications, following a BYOD philosophy (friendly to all the new devices). It must become a part of the Networked Society, the Global Ecosystem, Zuckerberg’s Internet.org and the synergies that those represent.”

AGL Small Cell Link: Sum up the keys to success for municipal Wi-Fi.

Abrams: “A successful citywide public spectrum project grows from a solid relationship with the municipality, follows a professional RF engineering design, and uses state-of-the art wireless equipment. Finally, the business model must be innovative and pay off for all the stakeholders.”