How Municipal WiFi Works

Wireless Basics

The early days of home Internet access required using a modem connected to a computer to dial a number and maintain a connection. It was cumbersome and slow. The faster modems became, the more people realized how painfully sluggish data transmission had been in the days of 300 baud. Eventually, home users who could afford a jump in price could get broadband access via digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable

and satellite.

Broadband access is faster than dial-up, but until recently you still to plug your computer into a wall jack or a piece of equipment. Wireless networking, or WiFi has changed all that. Wireless networks use 802.11 networking standards to allow devices to communicate. In a WiFi network, data travels from place to place via radio waves. You still have to physically connect a wireless router to a modem, but you can move your computer from place to place.

802.11 networking uses the unlicensed radio spectrum to send and receive data. Many other parts of the spectrum, such as the bands that carry radio and TV signals, require a license to use. The unlicensed spectrum is accessible to anyone who has the right equipment. In the case of wireless computer networking, that's a wireless router and wireless technology in the device you're using.

Since 2002, many people have set up wireless networks in their homes. Businesses have done the same, giving their employees additional mobility. Public gathering places, like coffee shops, parks and libraries, have created WiFi hot spots, hoping to draw in additional businesses. The number of public hot spots has grown rapidly -- analysts estimate that there will be 200,000 of them by 2008 [ref].

Now, cities have begun setting up municipal wireless networks. As of January 2006, 186 United States cities had their networks up and running or had definite plans to build one. That's up from 122 cities in the previous July [ref]. Some of these networks provide high-speed Internet access for free, or for substantially less than the price of other broadband services. Others are for city use only -- they allow police and fire departments and other city employees to do certain aspects of their jobs remotely.

Cities currently proposing networks have several goals. They want to improve worker productivity, make the city more attractive to businesses, bolster the economy, bridge the digital divide or do all these things with one network. The United States is also 16th in the world in broadband penetration, which some leaders believe is a sign that the nation is falling behind [ref]. A wireless network might make broadband access more available and affordable for more people.

Often called "municipal WiFi," these networks use more than just 802.11 networking. A wireless access point in a municipal network is also different from a typical WiFi hot spot. Next, we'll look at the "mesh" that makes a wireless network.