Wireless Internet in the US = Neo-Feudalism?

After two days of touring Wales, a country that apparently has yet to discover the mixing faucet, it has become apparent that there is better mobile phone coverage in the remotest sheep pasture or coastal outcrop than in downtown Boston. How can such an otherwise backward place be so far ahead of the U.S. technologically?

Most folks are familiar with the story: in Europe the governments mandated that all cell phone systems be built using the GSM standard. Thus you can make or receive a call any time that you’re within range of any antenna from any provider In practice this means nearly 100 percent coverage of the land area of Europe.

One of the advantages that the U.S. had over Europe in the days prior to European Union was an absence of trade barriers. In feudal times every local duke or prince was able to levy tariffs on goods traveling through his town. Thus it became cheaper to undertake the hazardous sea voyage round the horn of Africa rather than pay all the toll collectors on the land route. Pre-Union Europe retained some of the vestiges of that feudalism and her economic growth was inhibited.

The U.S. by contrast was a model of efficiency. The government built roads from coast to coast and you could drive a truckload of goods from Virginia to California without paying a toll. True free marketeers will argue that it is better to charge road users every time they set their tires on pavement and this may indeed be the case in our congested cities. But most of the time the cost to society of an additional car on the road is too small to bother collecting and the road generates economic growth for all, thus justifying the role of government in paying for it.

Let’s look at wireless Internet for a moment. The ability to send a few packets of information from Point A to Point B without laying expensive cables can spawn a tremendous variety of new computer applications. Using computers intelligently saves energy, cuts pollution, increases security, and generates wealth. What do we see when we open the newspaper? Our politicians trying to figure out how to ameliorate the pernicious effects of feudalism in the Arab world. Occasionally there will be an article about T-Mobile or some other company building an 802.11 network in the U.S. There are going to be lots of competing networks apparently. For any given network you’ll pay $30/month for spotty coverage. While our politicians fret about old-style feudalism in the Muslim world they ignore neo-feudalism springing up in their midst.

Per capita, American citizens pay some of the highest taxes on the planet. 802.11 infrastructure is ridiculously cheap (e.g., $50 base stations). The public is allegedly the owner of the electromagnetic spectrum. Why can’t we combine these facts to conclude that every U.S. citizen ought to be entitled to transmit and receive a certain number of bits per year? Perhaps one’s free entitlement wouldn’t be enough to watch streaming video 24/7. But it would certainly be enough that your car could receive a text message from your wife while you were halfway to the grocery store: “The smoke alarm needs a 9V battery; add it to the list.” It would be enough that your car could notify your apartment that you were on your way home and to turn the heat up. It would be enough that your car could notify your palmtop or wristtop that it was being attacked by thieves. It would be enough that a medical monitor attached to your grandparent at home could transmit measurements and alerts to a doctor.

22 thoughts on “Wireless Internet in the US = Neo-Feudalism?

  1. Dear Philip,
    thanks for giving a European – that is me – the opportunity to feel content about something. Finally one thing that is better in Europe than in the USA (mobile phone coverage). Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, maybe not looking at facts and instead just listening to that feeling out of the gut. Maybe I’ll change that soon. MAYBE.
    As a European pessimist, however, I feel obliged to return the favour to you by stating a few – granted – isolated facts (just like you did):

    – UMTS: The supposedly next-generation mobile standard. In Germany the finance minister auctioned the licenses (frequency bands). And the European mobile phone company managers bid very high sums. Basically they (almost) ruined their companies, leaving no room for future business freedom. The state got some money, but has to pay
    now for that ruined subeconomy. But the underlying reason was the hype and incompetence of the managers, of course.

    – SMS: Short text messages used in Europe much more than in the US. In the US one usually just calls and talks, here people low on money (teenagers) use a lot of SMS. Maybe this points towards substantial price differences between old Europe and the US and subsequent usability.

    – taxes: Do the US citizens really pay the highest taxes. I’d almost doubt that. I always had the impression that taxes in the US were quite low in comparison (combine this with the strong US economy – a double bonus). I recently in Germany calculated my income figures. Despite the fact that my income is low (yes, unfortunately) and the nominal taxes for this “low” income are about 30%, if I sum up all the “hidden” costs (like what the employer HAS TO pay additionally to the state) the state takes away
    47% of my money! (and I haven’t got ONE real SINGLE benefit out of that) For a “normal” income the nominal tax rate would be already 50%! (and I’d guess the real fees much higher?). The REAL taxes (for streets, schools,…) are just 12%. The rest is labelled as “social” and “someone” gets it.

    – and finally: when does the European currency become strong vs. the greenback? Not because of an eminent strength of European economy, that is for sure with it at the edge of recession. So it is just the absence of the past dynamic of the US.

    As far goes my rambling (Yes, I’m frustrated). And now I’m done.

  2. Philip,

    Glad to hear you are the UK, hope you are enjoying yourself. If you are intending to visit Scotland don’t hesitate to get in touch – It would be great to meet up with you – I’ve enjoyed your books, writings, websites, photos and so on…

    All the best,

  3. While our politicians fret about old-style feudalism in the Muslim world they ignore neo-feudalism springing up in their midst.

    Ignore? I’d say they exploit and profit from neo-fuedalism.

  4. America is as much a land of contradictions today as it was 200 years ago. We are supposed to be based on ideas, not men. Apparently not.

    802.11 is the tip of the iceberg. “Cheap” infrastructure depends on the economic model used to do the measuring. The model we have in place is based on the fiction that natural capital is limitless and it’s exploitation has no hidden costs. That balance sheet benefits those whose debts to do appear to be associated with their accounts.

    How do you alter the accounting method to reflect these hidden costs? There are strong vested interests in keeping them hidden.

  5. I should qualify which natural capital is limitless, in my comment above, and then shut up for a while.

    How ironic that water, coal, wood, petroleum are among those natural resources assumed to be “limitless” in our economic model, but the electromagnetic spectrum is *not* considered limitless by our economic model!


  6. Hi Philip,

    likewise the offer extends to the Isle of Man if you fancy a visit. Quite different to the vast beauty of Scotland, but very picturesque none the less (if you’ve seen the film ‘Waking Ned Devine’ then you’ll have some idea of what to expect, as it was actually filmed here rather than Ireland).

    We’ve got cats with no tails, the world’s oldest democratic parliament (Tynwald), our own language (Manx), steam trains and horse-drawn trams, as well as amazingly beautiful scenery and a very “interesting” rate of taxation (though the Island’s not ‘officially’ classed as a tax haven).

    If you’re into motorbikes/motorsport at all then you might want to come for the TT (Tourist Trophy). Practice Week starts this coming Monday, with TT Week following; it’s the largest roadrace in the world and something of a phenomenon, the festivities alone would make it a worthy trip.

    If you want something a bit calmer then I’d recommend the 7th of July (Tynwald day), when parliment meets in public on Tynwald hill for the usual ceremony, and the public gets to redress grievances, etc. Certainly a nice day out.

    Phew, bit of a hard sell was that 😉



    P.S. I can even lend you an EOS-3 and some L glass as long as you promise to look after them, if that’s any incentive!

  7. S.: according to the World Bank Luxembourg and Lichtenstein lead the U.S. in per capita purchasing power, but then the rest of the world trails off after that. So while we might not pay high taxes as a proportion of income (although I’m not rich, and by the time we include sales taxes I pay around 50% from just the obvious taxes: income, sales, automobile), we pay a lot per capita in purchasing power.

    Reading carefully and extrapolating, I think that Philip is saying that we pay high taxes per capita as an overall amount. As a percentage of income, I’m sure most European countries are higher, but

  8. Doh. Sorry about that. Must remember to kill off my drafts next time. Ignore the second paragraph.

  9. I think the incompatibilities are on purpose.

    Look at the FM phenomenon. Pretty much every country in the world has shortwave on the radio sets sold to public, but in the North American market radios come with very low resolution in tuning and NO SW recieving capabilities. Its technically not that difficult, but its a boon if you’re a media giant looking to lock consumers into a set of radio stations that all sound the same (complete with the phony laughs of the “DJ’s”. Who seem to think – almost universally – that laughing at their own “comedy” somehow makes it funny for the bored listeners).. this is a God-send.

    I can understand the FM only mentality since the US wanted to keep mass penetration of the other side’s ideas out of the public’s mind, but now that has turned into an instrument of leverage in the hands of the “free media” who would like to keep the public as much away from reality as possible.

    Having different standards is acceptable, even desirable – if you are the only superpower and the largest consumer society on the face of the planet – with an aim to keep your public numb with useless information and a desire to control dissemination of information (or misinformation) to a generally un-interested public.


  10. Er, as a proportion of income, Americans pay among the *lowest* taxes in the developed world. Having said that, Mr. G still makes some good points about feudalism.

  11. Agreed Phil. I think what’s the most depressing is that we’re looking forward to this great 802.11 commons in our future and it’s slowly going to turn into a commerical venture.

    I’m not sure if 802.11b, with it’s rather lame range, is the appropriate way to go about this plan to extend a nationwide network. I do think that the government should get involved and either open up areas of “cellular” spectrum, so that we may have long range capabilites, or fund the development of them.

    It’s the fault of language that we live in a country where “free market” and “pro-buisness” have come to mean “protection for the companies from which we benefit.”

  12. One point: my Welsh mother refused to have a mixer tap on the basis of the water wasted when drawing safe drinking water after drawing hot water.

    Don’t mistake rural for ‘backward’.

  13. >>>>>
    How do you alter the accounting method to reflect these hidden costs? There are strong vested interests in keeping them hidden.

    An accounting method is not reality, it is an accounting method. Enron can’t stay profitable merely by reporting profits – there has to be real profits. Likewise, America can not remain economically viable by leaving environmental costs off the books for 200 years, as you imply. The fact that the American economy is still strong suggests that your case for externalized environmental costs is somewhat weaker than you think. Assume that by externalizing environmetal costs you push the payment date 30 years into the future. That means we are right now paying the environmental debts of 1973 – and we suffer no meltdown because of it. Likewise, in 2033 we’ll be paying the environtmental debts of today – and we will perhaps do a fine job paying those debts. In the end, environmental debts become just like any other form of debt – a limit on growth, but not a catastrophic one.

    Having different standards is acceptable, even desirable – if you are the only superpower and the largest consumer society on the face of the planet – with an aim to keep your public numb with useless information

    Given the wealth of media options now available, each company needs to give consumers exactly what they want, or the company suffers loss and eventual bankruptcy. What’s offered to the public on the radio may not be things that I like, but it is clearly what the public likes. I’ve got a ton of friends who are devotees of one radio station or another.

    I can not even resort to cheap stereotypes here – like an ignorant public listens to radio, while intellectuals like myself prefer to read weblogs because they are deeper. The truth is more interesting – some of my most intellectual friends are devoted to the various “alternative” radio stations in this town.

  14. This has been a recurring theme in some of your writing in the past, if I remember correctly. I support it whole-heartedly. Even a staunch fiscal conservative like me sees the benefit of, say, adding an 802.ll hub to every few electrical poles within a city. Granted, approaching the expanses of nothingness in some parts of the US might not be feasible, but including wireless in everything that is remotely urban would generate wealth (and tax revenue) far beyond the infrastructure investment.

    As far as the tax rates go, I am assuming Philip means the tax rates world-wide. The US has low income taxes compared to Europe, but not compared to the world as a whole, as far as I know. Citizens of many countries would starve if they had to pay 30% out in taxes. It’s only thanks to the immense wealth in the first-world that we can afford to pay it.

  15. I beg to differ with much of what you say in this editorial, but I will focus on only the following: “True free marketeers will argue that it is better to charge road users every time they set their tires on pavement and this may indeed be the case in our congested cities. But most of the time the cost to society of an additional car on the road is too small to bother collecting and the road generates economic growth for all, thus justifying the role of government in paying for it.”

    Let me begin with your most egregious example of backwards logic: “…justifying the role of government in paying for it.” In fact, the people pay for roads as part of the consent of the governed. No government can pay for anything unless it first raises revenue, i.e., via outright taxation, or via some other legal mechanism, e.g., by selling municipal bonds. Secondly, building and maintaining roads is funded by a variety of Federal, State, and local taxes, fees, etc. No street-legal vehicle may be operated on these roads without paying certain fees and taxes in advance or without paying more taxes at every fillup and at regular intervals. You stand reason on its head to presume that society doesn’t collect for every vehicle, every mile, every time in several ways, or that police don’t stop vehicles bearing expired tags. Thirdly, you folishly equate “society” and “government” with our Federal Government. This is sloppy journalism at best; at worst young skulls full of mush go away thinking that it’s the Federal Government’s job to raise the funds and take care of the problems. In my opinion, that’s wrong: The Federal Government should be collecting relevant taxes and fees and funding only about 10% of the roads, etc., and the states and citizens should be working hard to keep that percentage ever small. You would do well to reread and prehaps quote from the Federalist Papers to avoid such sloppiness. For example, from Federalist # 32: “It is, indeed, possible that a tax might be laid on a particular article by a State which might render it INEXPEDIENT that thus a further tax should be laid on the same article by the Union; but it would not imply a constitutional inability to impose a further tax. The quantity of the imposition, the expediency or inexpediency of an increase on either side, would be mutually questions of prudence; but there would be involved no direct contradiction of power.”

    That is, with regard to Federally mandated highways (“post roads” in the Constitution), other roads, and streets, each level of government may tax vehicle owners and operators for the use of these roads, etc. with considerable jurisdictional overlap as each level feels is necessary and prudent, without violating the Constitution. Federal highway funds are collected, consolidated and then doled out to regions and localities, often with political favors in mind, but that does not invalidate the consitutionality of the process. If said taxes, etc. or their manner of disbursement becomes unnecessary and imprudent, political opponents will certainly make that known. The political process then takes care of such disputes under the umbrella of the Constitution. For example, congested cities and even those not-so-congested may charge extra taxes and fees to help pay for roads over and above the funds that what the state has allocated. In other words, most of the time cities and towns consider what they need to do, but it is merely a happenstance that most don’t impose special local taxes. If I were in charge, it would be just the opposite. That is, nowadays the Federal Goverment collects most of the funds and doles them back out to states and localities. This appraoch is not unconstitutional in itself, but we as a nation were very imprudent to let ourselves become trapped by trickle-down government funding. The overarching reason is that no one can run away from outrageous Federal taxes. Where are you going to go? Canada, Mexico? Further? It’s ridiculous to even consider it. However, practically any motorist can afford to drive a few miles to get to a lower local taxing area. Thus, local and, to some extent, state goverments would have to watch over their shoulders before they impose higher taxes on a highly mobile populace. Instead, the ever increasing federalization of our nation has let competition in government become almost an oxymoron.

    The same strategy should apply to telecommunications and most other facts of our life. If it does not, we generally find that we have been herded into a common pen like a bunch of sheep and shorn of all that the long-knife Federal shearers can reach, and that we have no recourse. You may think that it is radical of me that something as pervasive and widespread as telecommunications should be taxed and then funded primarily on a local level, then a state level, and finally only a small percentage at the Federal level. However, this must be so, and in all otherways possible as well, or there is essentially no competition and little incentive to improve. A large measure of the genius of the Constitution was to foster fair competition among the states and localities to provide such incentives. However, writers like you who see only an endless set of Federal roads that connect cities filled with local yokels too dumb to tax local vehicles based upon local use only sread and perpetuate the notion that fostering competition in government is too hard, too tough, and too divisive. Believe me, about 90% of all mileage is for local travel or fairly close to home, e.g.,commuting relatively short distances,driving within the same state, so there is no rational basis for the Federal Government to get the lion’s share of the fuel and other taxes and then tricle them down. The only basis for this approach in any form of taxation is that Washington is too remote, besides being too hard, and too tough to beat. I remember the time in the ’80’s that farmers drove tractors to Washington to protest some changes to farm subsidies. That’s a different issue, but even back then I knew that the bureaucrats and lawmakers could just wait them out and thus easily win. We can only effectively reduce taxes and make government more efficient and responsive if the majority of the funds are collected and disbursed locally. It then falls upon the state and federal governments, respectively to help fill in the gaps. Otherwise we will all become wage slaves siupporting an ever bloated bureaucracy and clientele of special interests that can aford to lobby year-round. Government then becomes less and less responsive to the people, let alone cost-effective.

  16. I’ve made it up to Edinburgh by now, more or less in continuous GSM coverage. On the US tax question… I was talking about the absolute dollar amounts. The federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. collectively spend a very large percentage of the GDP (40 percent?), in the same ballpark as European countries. Combined with the fact that per-capita GDP has been so high in the U.S. (though maybe that’s partly because it was overstated due to the artificially inflated dollar), it seems reasonable to conclude that Americans are near the top in paying taxes. We obviously believe that the government should take responsibility for ensuring that a certain amount of infrastructure gets built (e.g., roads, which are incredibly expensive). So my point was “The government has all of our money and a mandate to create infrastructure; why isn’t there any useful wireless Internet infrastructure or any credible plan for a future in which such an infrastructure might exist?”

  17. Mixer taps – put the plug in the basin, and it will mix in there. Surely you’re not wasting water by using the taps with the plug out?

    (Just echoing the “don’t mix rural with backward” point of a previous poster. And defending my country.)

  18. I’ve got the solution – get your local congresscritter to sponsor the “National Defense Wireless Infrastructure Act”. Our Boys In Uniform need to be able to communicate in our cities when the heathen devils attack! It worked for highways, it worked for GPS, why not this?

  19. There are very good reasons why cellular coverage is better in Europe than in the US:
    1. Europe is a heck of a lot smaller. The area that any individual service provider has to cover is relatively small. Service providers in the United States have an enormous territory to cover, and have generally done it–have you looked at the map of analog coverage in the US? Even digital is starting to cover most of the areas that 70-80% of the nation’s population lives in.
    2. European telecomm companies were (and in many cases still are) government-run monopolies. Just like the old Civil Aeronautics Board, which used to mandate flights to every Congressman’s home district, lots of areas are served, but at an unjustifiable cost. If you really need cell phone service in the middle of the Nevada desert, pony up for a satellite phone–they’re getting cheaper all the time. Providing 100% coverage is just another example of what one is willing to pay–just like with software systems. Perfect reliability and quality are often technically possible, but at enormous cost.
    3. Local telephone service is often metered–many PTTs in Europe have only recently offered (if they do at all) flat-rate pricing. As a result, the uptake for cellular was faster than in the US, where cellular is only now becoming a price-competitive substitute for landlines. In Japan as well, the uptake for cell phone service is so high in part because fewer people have personal computers than in the US–to use any internet services at all, consumers had to buy cellular phones.
    4. Cellular service has network-effect like qualities: there is a critical mass of towers and cell phone users required before it becomes a mass market (and therefore profitable) phenomenon. It has taken American companies longer to achieve this, in part because of the reasons listed above (more territory to cover, must make business sense because they’re not government-run, etc.) It is only within the last few years that some major cable companies–which have been around since the late 1970s–have shown positive net incomes, after literally decades of investment (they’ve been cash-flow positive for longer, obviously). And cable-companies have local monopolies which cell-phone companies don’t.

    Your solution (a government-sponsored 802.11 hotspot on every light- or telephone-pole) is presently unworkable:
    1. How is the traffic backhauled? There are t-1 lines (at least) to every remote base station in the cellular networks–who will string a line to each (or each N’th, if the APs forward each other’s traffic) AP? (The high-bandwidth communications lines run underground). If one goes down? One would need redundant backhaul connections to make this reliable. And are light poles or telephone poles even close enough together that the “cells” would overlap? There are also “coloring” problems to consider–how do you make sure APs don’t clobber their neighbor’s channel (on a huge scale)? This is an issue inside buildings, not to mention across miles of open terrain.

    2. How much does each access point cost? You can’t just throw a Linksys AP on a pole and hope for the best, if you want the network to work at all. Equipment that goes in the “outside plant” of the telephone companies is developed to extremely rigorous mechanical and environmental standards (this stuff has to live through winters in Fargo and summers in Phoenix, without needing constant servicing). Telephone companies have built thousands of “huts” and “cabinets” out in the field, and equipment that goes in them must be able to withstand ridiculous extremes. And wireless APs would be a tougher problem, as they can’t be buried underground or housed in a protective bunker–they must be fully exposed.

    3. Who maintains the APs and the backhaul equipment? Each major telco spends literally billions every year buying new equipment and paying staff to operate and maintain existing equipment. They run extensive test labs. As above, “Five 9s of reliability” is really expensive to support. Coverage without reliability is worthless. Not to mention the upgrades. Swapping a radio on every lightpole in America would cost a bundle (sure, one could use a software-defined radio and various other phy- and mac-layer technologies to abstract this away, but that would increase the per-chip and thus the per-AP cost quite a bit over today’s low-cost APs).

    This seems to be a classic example of “it’s easy until you have to build it.” If you’re willing to cough up the extra dough in the form of taxes to pay for this, you might as well just get a satellite phone and a modem card and live with it. If you really need to blog from a truly remote area, don’t expect it to be free.

  20. Any “credible plan for a future in which such an infrastructure might exist” might not be that easy to come up with due to the pace in which these wireless technologies are evolving! The mere fact that Wi-Fi (802.11) seems to superior compared to status quo or to what one was used to serves as well as evidence for this as the fact that already so called 4G-technologies are not only being developt, but already working, thus basically rendering the expensive bought frequency licenses of European telecom carriers possibly a bit useless (there aren’t any anticipated multimedia applications up to date working anyway). This is a well-known phenomena in the world of IT (e.g. the comparison of a PC 10 years old with a current one). This 4G-technologies promise to combine the transfer rates of Wi-Fi with the mobile coverage of current wireless telephone networks.

    As this field is a work-in-progress there also aren’t any de facto standards to build upon yet or means to determine which is the right way for a standardizing or coordinating autorithy in a sufficiently lasting way (at least for 4G) ? Further, just setting up such Wi-Fi stations everywhere would not create by itself a working whole solution. For one, because of the spotty coverage and low range of this technology, but also because there arise many implementation issues which probably would contribute the real work load and challenge (Skimmed over an article suggesting this point of view).

    Aside of this, the FCC (or whichever government body) is a bureaucracy, thus too slow for this pace. Another point is, that due to the advent of powerful computing for radio solutions the old way of dividing and handling the spectrum (as finite, stated in comment above already) seems at least questionable and the issue might just be to free the spectrum up for the new digital way.

    Besides this, for such issues the Western model has in the past very often showed the superiority of the company-approach vs. the state approach. Just like the state doesn’t build cars or provide electricity, it might be that organical growth and the capability of companies to adapt to countless details encountered in reality (including when things – as quite often – turn out to be different than expected) are what matter here.

    From my remote point of view thus the best approach would be – especially for people associated with universities or universities themselves – to somehow interlink with such promising companies which deploy into this area of future communication either by supporting their students founding such companies (seems to hard at a first glance) or by cooperating in research (sharing the brains of their students) with such companies already in the area, which might in turn provide a “real environment” for students and be prospective future employers, too.

    When these technologies become truly available to the people it might indeed be a revolution: Just the application of seeing (quality real time video) and talking easily everywhere with anyone besides and virtual corporation software might render the need for physical offices and people to gather at one physical location a thing of the past to a degree unprecedented (esp. in combination with future gadgets, like laser eye projectors worn like sun glasses; or long-battery-life very powerful computers in mobile phone size). But surely it is also – like every technology – a two-edged sword. But I still have to recognize the other edge of it.

  21. Philip,
    As a Network Engineer, I seriously doubt the claim that there is better mobile phone coverage in Wales that there is in Boston. Most of Massachussetts is covered in GSM just as well as Wales is. Please see this website http://www.gsmcoverage.co.uk/coverage.html and compare the coverage maps for yourself. In the US, there is cellular coverage using nine different licenses in each market using Analog (AMPS), CDMA (IS-95), TDMA (IS-136), and ESMR (iDEN) I would venture to say that in Boston, there are more cellular options than in Wales and all these options are available at a lower price to the consumer.

    It is true that most of Europe is covered with GSM. This is mainly because most of Europe is covered with people and in other places, the government has mandated it (to the cost of the subcriber). The United States on the other hand, is relatively sparsely populated and does not have Government regulations mandating that every sheep farm, desert, or corn patch be covered. Also in the United States, the Federal Government does not tell corporations how to do their business. Therefore they don’t mandate which standards or protocols are to be used. They let the carriers and ultimately market decide which is better through which company provides the best service. If you really needed complete nationwide coverage, you would have bought an Iridium phone. The company went out of business because such complete coverage was not needed here, or you were not willing to pay the $3000 for the phone and the $3-$5 per minute call charges. The lesson here is that ubiquitous covergage costs money.

    The government built roads from coast to coast and justified their role in paying for it as reasons for the national defense, not for building the economy. President Eisnehower enacted the law “National Defense Highway System” in 1956. Of course, these roads are now what we call Interstates.

    You obviously recognize the value of the wired internet and the wireless or mobile internet. And you are correct in that politicians are more interested in solving threats to our security and safety than interfering in the doings of telecommunications companies and individuals. Newspapers tend to cover the shocking news. But, I must admit that T-Mobile has gotten quite a lot of coverage with their 802.11 Hotspot networks in over 2,300 Starbuck Stores, A dozen or so Airports, 130 American Airlines, United and Delta Clubs, 400 Border Stores and soon to come thousands of Kinkos stores. One thing that you miss here, Phil, is that most of the country is already covered for Wireless Internet. The entire T-Mobile GSM system is capable of carrying data using GPRS. http://www.t-mobile.com/tmobile_internet/ Other companies are covering the US with another protocol called 1XRTT. Unfortunately, this 2.5G or 3 G ubiquitous coverage is not affordable to most people at $1 per megabyte. T-Mobile and other carriers note the need for delivering wireless Internet at high data rates (Broadband generally means >200Kbps) and for less costs. However, high data rates come with a trade-off called Shannon’s law. You can’t have coverage and high data rates at the same time due to noise. Many of these companies are gambling that wireless Internet is not required in all corners of the country and are deploying the systems where people are most likely to use them.

    I’m not sure if I agree that per capita, American citizens pay some of the highest taxes on the planet. What I will agree with is that American citizens get some of the lowest returns on their tax dollar investments. Much of tax spending takes money away from citizens who can spend their dollars towards projects that are needed. I really don’t need the Government to collect taxes from everyone so that we can have wireless Internet coverage for a couple of sheep farmers in North Dakota, or every wilderness area in the country. It simply does not make economic sense.

    802.11 infrastructure is not exactly ridiculously cheap either. To outfit an airport with 802.11 costs millions of dollars of infrastructure and require thousands of dollars for every monthly charges for backhaul, maintenance and equipment upgrates. While in your home, it is cheap to deploy 802.11 by connecting it up to your cable or DSL, commercial deployment of 802.11 requires more infrastructure such as conduit, interduct, fiber-optic networks, miles of CAT-5 cable, switches, routers, and plenum-rated power-over ethernet capable access points. Commercial grade equipment is much more reliable and consequently comes with a higher price tag.

    One of the big problems that 802.11 carriers still are facing is this notion that everyone wants their cut of the pie. City, County and State governments don’t get revenues from taxes anymore, so they look at the corporations to fill the gap. This is what I see as neo-feudalism. For example, many municipalities want huge Minimum Annual Guarantees, free infrastructure, free training, gifts to the under priviledged and large portions of any profit that remain. If there is no profit left to do the project, the carriers won’t be interested in providing the service. If a municipality really wants 802.11 to be made available to their citizens, they need to eliminate the trade barriers rather than expecting everything for free from the corporations.

    The owner of the electromagnetic spectrum for the most part in the United States is the Government. Much of it is leased out to corporations and individuals in the form of licenses. Licenses cost lots of money. In Europe, 3G licenses cost about $24,000 per subscriber. PCS licenses int he US were a bit more reasonable but nevertheless significant. These costs for 3G, UMTS, GSM, and GPRS are all being passed on to the consumer in the form of high cell phone bills. GPRS might not have cost $1 per megabyte if it were not for the high costs of licenses, permitting for putting up cell towers, costs to support the FCC itself… and so on. 3G may never happen here in the United States due to the high license costs and huge infrastructure costs. Governments clearly have the ability to tax and regulate their economy to complete collapse.

    I must however disagree with your notion of a wireless neo-feudalism. The beauty of 802.11 is that the spectrum is license free. This is what keeps the costs down to the subscriber. As a matter of fact, it’s the very Robin Hood notion that you are proposing of collecting taxes from the rich corporations and giving streaming video and free paging everyone (even if it’s just the poor drug dealers on the other side of the digital divide) that runs up the costs of delivering services to subscribers. It’s a noble sounding ideal, but these “entitlements” have to be paid for in the end by the consumer.

    If a consumer needs a pager, then he should get one. If a real-estate lady needs Wireless Internet for her business, by all means, let her get GPRS or take her customers to Starbucks and use the Hotspot service there. But it should not be the Government’s business to collect taxes so that everyone gets ubiquitous Internet throughout the whole country.

    Wi-Fi is relatively free of wireless neo-feudalism and should be kept that way. In fact, one way the government can further de-regulate Wi-Fi and encourage it is to provide more unlicensed spectrum. Some of this is already being done. See Revision of Parts 2 and 15 of the Commission’s Rules to Permit Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure (U-NII) devices in the 5 GHz band (ET Docket No. 03-122) at http://www.fcc.gov. However, 5.6-5.7 GHz band is not very good for backhaul due to its short range.

    The huge, wast empty space of VHF and UHF broadcast television channels that are currently empty between active channels could be used to provide competition by allowing wireless backhaul to deliver the last mile. These bands are much more suited to penetrate buildings and dense vegetation. Backhaul on the empty TV channels would provide much needed competition against the wireline telcos that still have a monopoly on their cable infrastructure – T1s and DSL service. It’s this very infrastructure that has contributes to the high monthly re-occurring costs of a Wi-Fi system.

    Most recently, the homeland defense is requiring police departments to deploy wireless internet in all the citites nearly at all the traffic lights. The purpose is twofold. The digital video cameras on top of the light poles need backhaul and the policemen need access to crime informationd databases. See http://business.cisco.com/prod/tree.taf%3Fasset_id=83103&ID=92783&ListID=44753&ParentID=92781&public_view=true&kbns=1.html If municipalities were really interested in helping to make Wi-Fi ubiquitous, they would let carriers ride their 802.11 networks for additional revenues. Cisco 1200 access points for example, can support both one public network and up to 15 other networks on SSIDs that are not broadcast.

    Konrad Roeder
    Co-Author of Wi-Fi Handbook : Building 802.11b Wireless Networks — Konrad Roeder, Frank D., Jr. Ohrtman; Paperback ISBN 0071412514

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