Large Wi-Fi hot zones have been making news again, in Santa Clara (thanks to the city’s smart meter project), San Jose (free Wi-Fi downtown), Petaluma (free Wi-Fi hot zone), New York City (thanks to Google), and in metro stations, shopping centers and on public transportation. Many cities and private enterprises now have money to roll out public Wi-Fi networks. Demand from the public for Wi-Fi service has skyrocketed over the past five years with the use of smartphones and tablets.
Changes in public Wi-Fi usage between 2005 and 2013
If you are in the business of deploying large-scale Wi-Fi networks or if you are a city that is intent on offering Wi-Fi service to residents and visitors, don’t dig up those old RFPs that municipalities and wireless ISPs used in the past (circa 2005). This is a whole new world. Here’s what’s different today.
(1) Massive usage of iPhones, Android phones and iPads
Cellular networks today are struggling to keep up with data traffic generated by mobile devices and Wi-Fi networks are under the same pressure to keep up. You have to assume that if you set up a Wi-Fi hot zone in a public space, for example, a small square in Paris or New York, nearly everyone who has a smartphone in that square, will try to use it.
(2) Video on smartphones and iPads
And what are people doing on their smartphones? Streaming video. I noticed this year in Singapore that a much larger percentage of the passengers on the underground metro are now on Samsung smartphones with large screens and that they are watching video. Last year in Singapore, nearly everyone still had an iPhone. Bigger screens invite people to watch video. Although the Singapore metro passengers were using the cellular networks, you can bet that if you offer free Wi-Fi in a public space, many will use it too, if only to avoid reaching their cellular data limit.
(3) Higher expectations among users based on their home Wi-Fi experience
Once upon a time, 1 to 3 Mbps download and 500 Kbps upload speeds were acceptable. Indeed, many of the RFPs issued by cities between 2004 and 2006 specified these speeds for the city networks. This is no longer acceptable today simply because most people’s home Wi-Fi speeds are so much higher.
Wi-Fi hot zones and hotspots need an upgrade
In some cases, large-scale Wi-Fi hotspots are well-funded, top-of-the-line engineered centralized systems run by competent network managers. Assuming sufficient back-end bandwidth, these systems are designed to efficiently handle all sorts of traffic, including video traffic. Faster AP processors, better RF radios, and quality firmware mean that the user experience, regardless of the application, is solid within the range of the access points.
However, many Wi-Fi hotspots are still served by a single or multiple stand-alone devices, most of them based on low-cost Atheros chips running firmware based on some form of an open-platform coding. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels that use cheap access points to deliver services where QoS isn’t even considered. In addition, there are no system controls on file-sharers or video streaming bandwidth management. I’ve seen a single file-sharer destroy the user experience for simple web browsing for hundreds of other users, let alone allow video streaming to function.
In addition, most small Wi-Fi hotspots use low-bandwidth DSL or cable feeds as backhaul. These backhauls and the associated modem/router aren’t designed to handle tens of users, let alone provide QoS capabilities. If a user gets decent video in that environment, it simply means that nobody is running torrents through the router and five other people aren’t trying to find out who got voted off the island last night. Hot spot quality is simply the luck of the draw. Everyone thinks that it’s easy to set up a hotspot but they don’t consider the quality of the user experience and that can vary greatly depending on the quality of the deployment and the equipment used.
In a series of articles about the terrible quality of hotel Wi-Fi and conference Wi-Fi, other commentators (notably Andy Abramson, Tim Pozar and Rory Conaway) have suggested ways to improve the quality of Wi-Fi service, starting with sufficient backhaul and number of Wi-Fi access points. Thankfully the prices of both have gone down in the last few years and if Google gets around to deploying even more fiber around the US, we will see even better sources for backhaul.
Now, it’s up to the people deploying large-scale outdoor and indoor Wi-Fi networks to take the same steps to upgrade their networks or in the case of new deployments, to abandon the standards that applied in 2005. The network needs to go beyond people just browsing websites and reading email — people need to be able to stream video on their phones. If you don’t have the budget to allow this, warn people in advance and use system controls to prevent them from streaming video or uploading and downloading large files. An alternative is to charge extra for more bandwidth: those who want to stream video can pay, and those who don’t, can enjoy free access.
Regardless of what you decide to do with your large-scale Wi-Fi network, don’t look to the past. Your users are living in the present.
*Note: Thanks to Rory Conaway for his help in writing this article.