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Wire Art Thou

N Kalyan Raman

In the world of communication technologies, the seventies ushered in the Negroponte Switch, named after Digital Age Guru, Nicholas Negroponte, of MIT’s Media Lab who had predicted that: “What is in the air will go under the ground. And what is underground will go into the air. Like, more and more television will go through cables than over airwaves and more and more telephone will use airwaves instead of copper wires buried along roads.

In India, as elsewhere, the Negroponte Switch is near-complete. We now have over 200 million cellular phone connections – over wireless networks - as compared to less than 40 million fixed phone connections; and 85 million cable-television households versus only 40 million which receive television directly from the nearest transmitter.

How did the ‘cellular revolution’ come about? The simple reason is: the average person is mobile outside home and office, town and country of residence, and he needs to stay connected. Personal mobile communication was the mother of ‘killer-apps”, appealing to people irrespective of age, gender, occupation, income, culture and location differences. As the saying goes: wires tie you down, as if to a tree / wireless sets you free.

With the spread of the Internet and the advent of the Information Age, people need to send and receive many other types of information as well: data, sound, text and multimedia messages, images, audio and video clips—typically over the Internet, anytime, anywhere. While voice-centric cellular networks are being upgraded to the next generation (3G) gradually to deliver this capability, two other technologies, Wi-Fi (“Wireless Fidelty”) and WiMAX (“Wireless Inter-operability for Microwave Access”), which are designed specifically around packet-based data communication, promise to take us closer to the reality of a wireless platform for ubiquitous, seamless connectivity for data communication—in our homes, neighbourhoods, public areas, and across our cities.

Originally conceived as a short-range wireless technology for enabling nomadic access to the Internet for computing devices - desktops and laptop PCs - within range of an Access Point, Wi-Fi has moved from being the technology of choice for mobile data connectivity in homes and enterprises, and then in public hotspots such as airports and hotels, to its third and most futuristic phase—the citywide Wi-Fi network, which can offer ubiquitous and seamless connectivity to desktop & laptop PCs, PDAs, smartphones, etc.

Wireless Cities - which are also referred to as Metro Wi-Fi or Muni Wi-Fi networks - have been creating a buzz all over the world in the past couple of years. Starting with citywide wireless network deployments in Philadelphia, San Francisco Mountain View and Taipei in 2006, the gospel of Unwiring Cities has spread to Tokyo, London, New York, Paris and Singapore. Hundreds of smaller cities in the US have deployed Muni Wi-Fi network or have plans to do so. The day cannot be far off when all the major cities in the world will have fully operational citywide wireless networks.

Indian cities, too, are not far behind in planning for such initiatives. Unwire Pune and Unwire Bangalore networks are reported to be ready for rollout. Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata are other Indian cities which have launched initiatives towards full-scale or partial deployment of City Wireless networks in the near future.

What makes a Citywide Wireless Network?

A cluster of suitably located Wi-Fi access nodes which can talk to one another forms the basic unit of a Muni Wi-Fi network. The access nodes are equipped with an access radio to provide connectivity to user devices – Wi-Fi enabled laptops, PDAs, smartphones – and a backhaul radio to carry the traffic to and from the access node to the exit point – or egress node – of the cluster. Aggregated traffic from all the access nodes in the cluster is backhauled over a wired or wireless connection to the Internet via the Network Operations Centre (NOC). An aggregation of such access node clusters, contiguously placed and covering the public areas of a city, constitute the City Wireless network. The access nodes are mounted typically at 5 m above the ground level, on a variety of public assets: lampposts, utility poles, rooftops and sides of public buildings, traffic signals, etc. and are powered by mains power supply with battery backup. Solar power devices are also used where essential. It is usually necessary to set up a network of Fixed Wireless or WiMAX Base Stations covering the entire city. Traffic can be backhauled from the egress nodes of the Mesh Wi-Fi Network using a WiMAX Subscriber Terminal to the nearest Base Station and from thereon to the NOC. Network operations & maintenance, authentication & billing, security, management of bandwidth and Quality of Service for individual users, CRM functionalities are performed at the Network Operations Centre.

The network is capable of supporting delivery of data, voice & video as IP (Internet Protocol) encapsulated packet streams with the necessary features for ensuring the required Quality of Service parameters for voice & video services which are sensitive delay in the transmission of packets. The user can seamlessly move between access nodes anywhere within the coverage area of the network without the session being disrupted. While Internet Access at the desired speed is enabled for individual users, the network can also provide special services for its individual subscribers on a private network portal. These include various content & information services (music, video and information downloads, audio & video streaming), location based services, mapping & information database for various location-based services, radio programme distribution, e-commerce transaction platform for both government & private entities, events listing, location-based advertising, ‘push’ information services, etc.

City Wireless Networks also so support inbound and outbound roaming, very similar to the way cellular mobile users can roam between networks and locations. Through suitable roaming arrangements between providers, business visitors and tourists from India and abroad can use their home subscriptions for roaming into the city wireless network. Any hotspot within the city – be it a hotel, campus, coffee shop or airport – can be integrated into the network through similar roaming arrangements. Subscribers to the city’s network will similarly be able to roam into other hotspots and networks in other locations.

In addition to provision of Internet Leased Line bandwidth over the WiMAX network, several services can be offered for enterprises and government agencies. Closed User Group VoIP calling network over the Mesh Wi-Fi network coverage can be used by field personnel for co-ordination, security, emergencies and access to headquarters. Interconnection of Enterprise LANs in several locations across the city and supporting VoIP, IPTV and software based videoconferencing on a CUG basis can provide significant benefits to businesses and government agencies.

Surveillance of private and public spaces, especially in cities, has become a critical requirement in these troubled times. The availability of a citywide wireless network facilitates the deployment of IP cameras at crucial spots in the city and backhauling the surveillance information via wireless links to a central facility for real-time display & monitoring and storage for offline analysis.

Using RFID chips in conjunction with Wi-Fi clients, companies can track their mobile assets in real time, using the network. Intra-city transport companies and call taxi services can track the location and availability of vehicles, while IT and ITES companies can track the location of their pick-up vehicles, thus ensuring the safety of their employees. The city wireless network can also support emergency communications and enhance capabilities of the Government for crime prevention, emergency response and disaster management

The availability of high bandwidth on a session basis facilitates access to multimedia gaming sites, a service likely to be very popular among students and youth.

Government agencies – at both municipal and State levels – can use the network to offer a variety of Government-to-Business and Government-to-Citizen information and transactional services, specific to the city. Public Access Internet Kiosks can be set up in disadvantaged areas of the city as well as in schools belonging to the municipal school system, to promote penetration and use of Broadband Internet among those on the other side of the Digital Divide. Specially designed e-learning materials can be delivered to disadvantaged groups and communities in the city over the network.

Through specially designed portals, the citywide network can offer a platform for several city-based groups & communities, industry associations, trade bodies and cultural outfits…the list is only limited by our imagination.

The complete infrastructure components for a citywide Wi-Fi cum WiMAX network are available from several international technology vendors, compliant with the relevant standards. Access to the network can be via a Wi-Fi enabled laptop or smartphone or PDA. Most laptops on the market today are “Wi-Fi enabled”, equipped with the 802.11 chipset. In addition, many tri-band and quad band phones are becoming commercially available, enabling the user to carry a single phone for access to a choice of 2G & 3G cellular and/or Wi-Fi networks. If the signals are available at home, a desktop PC with a suitable Network Interface Card can be used to access the network.. In Indian cities which are as yet underserved by wired broadband networks, Metro Wi-Fi networks could be designed to provide outdoor coverage as well as buildings & apartment complexes. Assured user bandwidth rates ranging from 128 kbps to several Megabits / s are possible while accessing the Internet. Users can take out monthly subscriptions on a post-paid basis, or purchase one of many pre-paid plans available for specified durations of usage (hours, days, weeks, etc.). There will be separate charges for Value Added Services delivered over the network. Different business models and tariff structures can be evolved for services to business and government entities, including infrastructure & value added services. Similar is the case for subscriber access to thirty-party information & content services.

The presence of a City Wireless network is bound to enhance the city’s prestige and make it an attractive destination for the citizens, businesses and investors with an eye on the future. In a typical Indian city, it would serve immensely to improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens, providing on-the-go access to a wide variety of information, content & transactional services and helping them realize the full benefits of broadband Internet access. Businesses can enjoy the advantages of a scalable and cost-effective converged services network across multiple locations in the city and in the field, without having to invest in expensive private infrastructure. Government agencies can fulfil their multifarious responsibilities in a better and more efficient way, reaching out to all areas and groups without discrimination. Productivity and efficiency of certain field-based operations will also be enhanced significantly.

The presence of a citywide wireless network providing secure and seamless connectivity and the increased capabilities thus made possible can be truly transformative in ways that we cannot imagine yet. The change can be particularly striking in a country like India where infrastructure availability for broadband Internet access is way below the requirement.

For reasons of economic viability, initial coverage in most cities is likely to be limited to a few areas of potentially high usage and revenue. (Singapore, predictably, is an exception, but then, what else may we expect of that exceptional city?). The initial investment cost of the infrastructure for a City Wi-Fi network is considered very high for a greenfield venture. A network providing coverage to 200 sq. km area could cost Rs. 60-100 crores, depending on traffic and equipment cost assumptions. Since adoption and usage will inevitably take time to build up – as it did for cellular mobile usage – a gradual rollout over at least two years is envisaged in most cases before a bona fide citywide network can be put in place.

Most city governments and policy makers are of the opinion that citywide wireless networks can and should succeed on a purely commercial basis, managed by private service providers. However, since the operations of a citywide wireless network depends critically on availability of public assets for mounting the outdoor equipment, of reliable and reasonably priced power supply and on the usage of the network by public agencies, some form of Public-Private-Partnership model is considered essential for making Metro Wi-Fi a reality. The low installed base of laptops in the country – less than 10 million in 2006 – indicates that widespread usage of such network and the investment will have to gradually phased along with increase in usage and revenue. The trend, spotted in a recent study, of more Indians accessing the Internet via mobile devices (mostly cellular phones) than via personal computers – 40 million vs. 20 million – augurs well for the future of public wireless networks. With the capabilities of handheld devices of all descriptions increasing by leaps and bounds, and given the staggering base of 200 million cellular subscribers committed to mobile communication usage, the time to begin deploying citywide wireless networks is already here.

Far more than the technological developments underlying the concept, the challenges of creating the right regulatory, civic and business environments remain formidable. They need to be met expeditiously and wisely for “wireless to set us free” in our cities, for reality to catch up with the excitement of the idea.

This article was published in Outlook magazine’s Technology Special issue dated 29 November 2007


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