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Wi-Fi Does Not Scale to Bridge the Digital Divide

Olmo Maldonado
Aug 12 · 7 min read

Access to the Internet is poor across the nation. There’s a Digital Divide that has socio-economic impact that echos through current and future generations. Closing the gap is worth it. We should all advocate and fund these efforts. We should reconsider the use of Wi-Fi technology to close the gap.

Beware of Wi-Fi resellers that promise a solution that appears to work on paper, but fails to live up to reasonable expectations. The users of the service will find it painful to use, and the public entity stuck with a large bill and a deprecated technology once employed.

Background / Disclaimer: I’m an Electrical Engineer (M.S.), and a Sr. Software Engineer. I understand the hardware and the software of internet systems. Yet, I don’t practice within the telecommunication industries. My opinion here is subject to a more extensive research. I have taken liberties and reduced the context provided to appeal to a broader audience rather than a technical one. If you disagree with my assessment, let’s discuss over the details. If you agree and you’d like to work on this contact me. I’d love to point you to the right people that have done this for a living (I wouldn’t point you to a Wi-Fi reseller, for example).

The Problem

I’m alarmed by the growing number of cities and school districts (ISDs), for example, that have decided to use Wi-Fi as the solution. Recent examples include:

In each of the above, you’ll find families struggling with:

  • Temporary relocation to get internet. Most Wi-Fi coverage is in specific areas of town which may not coincide with the family’s home location.
  • As more people and devices use the Wi-Fi towers families may find they’re unable to use the service since Wi-Fi has a limit of the number of seats per router (max. of 250 devices/users).
  • For each connected device only a part of bandwidth is available. For remote learning with Zoom and other high bandwidth demand, Wi-Fi will not scale.
  • Wi-Fi signal distribution requires many antennas. The required number increases as obstructions like buildings and even foliage which cause a lossy signal. Lossy signals cause dropped packets which is painful in conference calls and online learning.

In fairness, an individual tower is not a typical deployment. Mesh network technologies can be used to increase the range of the Wi-Fi coverage and device limits. This approach is very expensive due to the increased number of towers and access points. This is further limited by a known bottleneck: the base station. The base station is where all the data transmitted from the Wi-Fi towers goes to and forth to connect to the Internet. These base stations have transfer limits due to private utilities contract’s. Consequently, a resident may find it’s faster to use a cell service than to use the Wi-Fi network. Example: 1,000 devices connected to a capped 100 Mbps up and down base station. That would mean that per device only has 0.1 Mbps available compared to 3 Mbps from a 3G service. A 4G LTE service would have up to 12 Mbps.

What’s the solution?

Like any engineering problem: it depends. Unlike Wi-Fi resellers, however, I’m not here to sell any snake oil that if consumed would remedy all of your problems.

Instead, I’d like for cities and ISDs consider a long term investment. Rather than focusing on the immediate outcome: a newspaper headline that a few residents get to have Internet (whether they wanted it or not). We should discuss sound investments that will have long lasting value for businesses and residents.

I would prioritize investments in:

  1. Fiber optics (and, if necessary, point-to-point communication).
  2. 4G LTE or 5G technology.
  3. Wi-Fi last.

The city’s development corporation should incentivize for companies to install fiber optics. It’s a win-win. The businesses will have high speed internet and the area could be used for a 4G/5G tower as a localized base station. High speed internet means co-working spaces, and high tech office spaces. Tech startup, anyone?

As residential developers are planning new development, incentivize them to wire all the houses with fiber. At the very least at the entrance of each development. Even if the City does not have a nearby fiber junction, the city could prioritize the fiber layout to light up the fiber-ready homes. The developer or (in the long term) the City could provide the Internet access.

Aside: Even if this is still argued in court, the City could have their public company (e.g. the Public Works in McAllen) to control of the service since they may not fall into the same problems as a City entity could. I’ll leave it to the lawyers. At least in Chattanooga, Tennessee this has been proven successful model.

This investment has a multiplier effect:

  • Secure networks. Fiber optics is much more secure than going through public networks.
  • Faster networks. There’s no more capped bandwidths from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). You are the ISP. This allows gigabit speeds up and down at a (amortized in the long-term) fraction of the cost.
  • Redundant networks. Public networks run their connections through the utility poles. These poles are prone to problems (hurricanes, trees, and human error). Fiber optics should be buried.
  • Revenue source. Private and public utilities (e.g. other cities) can use your network. Please be sure to be competitive in the pricing. Don’t under sell the service you’re providing.

I’ll mention that while Point to Point Communication is mentioned here, it’s not something I would take on. A growing tree could impact the connection. As construction boons and new buildings are erected, that too will cause painful replanning. This may be a good solution, though, if you need to move fast to provide high speed access to very remote areas. I would consider this investment a temporary/stop-gap solution while fiber is installed.

This is the reasonable approach to the wireless problem. Fiber does not scale to a large number of homes and businesses, but wireless could. Similar to being an ISP with fiber, cities and ISDs should consider becoming a cell provider.

I’m not arguing for cities and ISDs to compete with Verizon and other telecoms, but rather use the technology to provide Internet. This would require the consumer to have a 4G LTE ready device. 4G LTE is now considered ubiquitous due to its availability in laptops, tablets, and phones. An adapter is also available that bridges from the 4G LTE signal to the device. One could pass the cost of the adapter to the consumer, but it would be reasonable to amortize the cost.

Here are some of the benefits with implementing 4G LTE / 5G service:

  • Offload costs from telecoms to in-house networks for city or ISD provided devices.
  • Much more extensive range/coverage (miles) compared to Wi-Fi (300 feet).
  • Much better capacity bandwidth and device allotment.
  • Ubiquity in the standard which lowers costs, and enables creative cost savings for everyone. Phones, for example, can use WiFi tethering to allow nearby devices to connect to the 4G LTE signal. Thereby avoiding the number of 4G LTE adapters a home may need.

Worth mentioning that while other cities have considered WiMax, I wouldn’t call this a suitable option. WiMax enabled devices are few compared to the number of 4G LTE devices in the market. The ubiquity factor is too beneficial to neglect.

While the first part of this article may have painted a bad light at Wi-Fi there’s still a place for Wi-Fi. That is at providing internet inside of buildings.

An analogy for the above is that the fiber optics is the highway, the 4G LTE is the local streets, and Wi-Fi is the residential streets. Would you prefer if cities planned their development in the reverse order (residential streets first)?

Due to the many reasons mentioned already, I’d recommend to only spend on Wi-Fi when it makes sense. Here’s a list of Dos and Don’ts for Wi-Fi investments:

  • DO NOT blanket a large part of the city with Wi-Fi access points. Too costly and impractical.
  • DO NOT use Wi-Fi for parks. This is what 4G LTE is for, and in the heat of the Rio Grande Valley computers/tablets would grind to a halt with built-in thermal limits.
  • DO NOT use Wi-Fi as remote access points (e.g. in vehicles) that share access point to nearby homes. Unless the vehicle is adjacent to the buildings (impractical) the range is limited. Unless the vehicle is connected via fiber, then the capacity is limited.
  • DO NOT provide public Wi-Fi for special events. Again this is what 4G LTE should be used for. Unless you provide an exuberant number of Wi-Fi access points the number of devices will be the bottleneck. I had first hand experience at this problem inside of a museum where the number of users in one room exceeded the Wi-Fi access point’s limits.
  • DO provide private Wi-Fi networks for special events as wiring can be dangerous.
  • DO provide Wi-Fi when people visit city and school owned properties, or perhaps businesses that get community grants. Examples include: museum, libraries, and non-profits (e.g. Chamber of Commerce).

Concluding

My goal with this article is to clarify that Wi-Fi should not be the default answer to all of our problems. Instead, consider investments that create foundational opportunities. I hope this article reaches commissioners, mayors, city and ISD management staff for consideration.

Have questions? Leave a comment, or contact me.

ibolmo

Sr. Backend Engineer at Zapier

Olmo Maldonado

Written by

Sr. Backend Engineer at Zapier, Ex-Googler, Founded Code RGV, M.S. Electrical Engineer UCLA, Full Stack Software Engineer

ibolmo

ibolmo

Sr. Backend Engineer at Zapier, Founder omcode, Ex-Googler, Founder of Code RGV, M.S. Electrical Engineer UCLA, Full Stack Software Engineer. All stories and opinions are my own.

Olmo Maldonado

Written by

Sr. Backend Engineer at Zapier, Ex-Googler, Founded Code RGV, M.S. Electrical Engineer UCLA, Full Stack Software Engineer

ibolmo

ibolmo

Sr. Backend Engineer at Zapier, Founder omcode, Ex-Googler, Founder of Code RGV, M.S. Electrical Engineer UCLA, Full Stack Software Engineer. All stories and opinions are my own.

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