Gulf Coast to North Coast...by Barbara Madaras
In a July 2005 Tech Beat column, I wrote about how the North Coast can greatly benefit from the surging global energy of networked individuals. (See ?Flattening the North Coast? in the archives or e-mail me for a copy.)
Now we see a devastating kind of flattening of the Gulf Coast, and among the ?lessons to be learned?, so-called ?flat? communications networks again are central.
New York Times? columnist Clive Thompson graphically describes the chaos of a major disaster with dead phone lines, downed cell towers, and failing electrical power: "We saw a similar lesson in 9/11: when communications crumble, so does society." (?Talking in the Dark?, NY Times, 9/18/05)
So the Gulf Coast misery again highlights an already heightened interest in so-called municipal wireless communications networks, or region-wide ?Wi-Fi?, freely available to residents and visitors. These are decentralized wireless meshes of many nodes that can extend the reach of wireless Internet and e-mail from already existing ?hotspots? (like Arcata Plaza and various locations in Eureka), as well as welcoming coffee shops, hotels, libraries and airports), to cover a several square mile area.
The reach could be extended to cover as much of the North Coast as desired. Transmitters (or ?nodes?) can be almost anywhere, on rooftops, towers, and poles at business and public locations, and because they are decentralized, the network is self-healing to the extent that nodes can take over for each other.
Wi-Fi?s value in a disaster situation can be literally lifesaving, and installing such a system could be justified for that reason alone. But, as many proponents point out, Wi-Fi could ease everyday communications ?from anywhere to anywhere? within our region, eliminating the necessity of finding and accessing a stationary system.
Wi-Fi is a system that links person-to-person and person-to-information, anytime and anywhere within range. Best of all, Wi-Fi networks are quite inexpensive in comparison with other existing alternatives. In a municipal system, users, especially visitors, could be given free access, with local interest information, maps, and special tourist promotions prominently available. Finally, low-cost Internet could be available to all residents.
So, should we be pushing our local jurisdictions to set up Wi-Fi?
Mike Langberg, writing in the San Jose Mercury on Sept. 24, is a firm naysayer. He describes the ?Philadelphia experiment?, wherein that city became the first in the U.S. to commit to what Langberg calls a ?pie-in-the- sky? plan to cover 135 square miles and 1.5 million residents. The experiment hasn?t gone well, and Langberg lists everything from overeager equipment suppliers to complex financing arrangements ? and a cost of $10 million for up to 2000 needed transmitters. At the end of the day, it looks like a bureaucratic mess that will finally offer customers service at about the same price as their existing DSL, even if it is wireless.
Langberg?s description is a far cry from Thompson?s optimistic assessment that a cost of $70,000 per square mile can deliver DSL-speed connections with emergency battery backups to boot. Certainly there are many current success stories of local areas that are effectively making Wi-Fi available. For example, Spokane, Washington has created a wireless mesh network covering 100 blocks of the downtown area with plans for expansion.
So what is the real story? The Redwood Technology Consortium (RTC) has been leading the way in promoting broadband access for the North Coast, and is a primary resource for helping sort through the possibility of building and operating municipal Wi-Fi networks. If you are interested in exploring these ideas, you are welcome to consider the RTC as a forum with a can-do attitude.
Philadelphia?s story may show us that expecting local government to carry the ball is not the way to make the process work. But we need to work collaboratively, and we need folks with the drive and the expertise to step forward. Our region?s business people are critical to such an effort, and we earnestly enlist their active involvement!
Wi-Fi is not a panacea for all communications, but it certainly has the potential to connect many of us outside the reach of lines or cables. In a time of disaster, our lifelines may be wireless.
Thanks to Bob Morse, who forwarded the link to Clive Thompson?s column to RTC members.