Towerstream’s Manhattan WiFi network: the answer to iPhone users’ woes?

Towerstream is rolling out a Wi-Fi network in 7 square miles (18 square kilometers) of Manhattan to address iPhone and other smartphone) users’ complaints of slow and spotty service, according to Businessweek. Users won’t be buying WiFi access from Towerstream directly. Towerstream is selling access to mobile operators in New York City, and those operators in turn will hopefully use the Towerstream network to offload data traffic from their 3G networks.

The idea of a WiFi wholesale provider is not new. In fact, this was the original plan behind many municipal WiFi networks. Several things went wrong:

  • Instead of going for a true wholesale model which the cities initially envisioned (and hiring a company like Towerstream to implement it), the municipalities went for the old, broken cable-franchise monopoly model which does not work well for WiFi.
  • The RFPs issued by many cities contained unnecessary, burdensome requirements that made the networks more expensive to build out.
  • At the time many of the projects were launched, there was no iPhone.
  • Cities wanted WiFi coverage everywhere – indoor and outdoor – without regard to where most of the users were located and where people really needed to use WiFi (contrast the Towerstream network which is available in specific areas where 3G network speed and connectivity are a problem).

As Glenn Fleishman points out (in an article that identifies inaccuracies in the Businessweek piece that reported on the Towerstream network):

“there wound up being built no taxpayer-funded municipal networks. All of the deals involved cities or counties bidding out the right to build a network, with access to public facilities (conduits, towers, building tops, etc.) as part of the carrot. Very little municipal money was spent, while private firms went through tens of millions in never-completed network buildouts. Minneapolis stands as a shining example of the only network that was completed and thrived. (The city purchases services from the network operator, but the network was funded and is run by US Internet.)”

I am watching Towerstream’s New York City wholesale network closely to see if the mobile operators will offload data traffic onto a network that they do not control. Perhaps the operators will sign up with Towerstream to test 3G-to-WiFi offloading and if all goes well, they will build their OWN WiFi networks.

Related article: Close to true 4G: Towerstream’s Manhattan Wi-Fi network – in December 2010, Craig Plunkett braved the freezing temperatures of Manhattan to test the Towerstream WiFi network in Union Square and delivered his verdict:

“. . . A quick speed test showed 5.45 Mbps down and 6.2 Mbps up, a perfectly good performance level, most probably restricted by the size of Towerstream’s pipe between its AP location and its distribution site . . . The latency on each network hop to Google was less than 10 Milliseconds, boding well for the support of IMS based voice clients that switch between cell and IP connections or pure VoIP apps. With its strategic distribution sites in some of the largest US markets, Towerstream seems well positioned to be able to help cellular carriers and other ISPs alleviate some issues in their most painful locations by offloading the data traffic from their smartphones. It remains to be seen whether Towerstream can convince the mobile operators in their markets to embrace their wholesale strategy and more fully integrate Wi-Fi data distribution into their architectures.”