Muni Wi-Fi can deliver speed, coverage if properly designed

The best networks are twice as fast as true 3G cellular with almost as good coverage. The secret is not to skimp on the access points. In cities, Wi-Fi nets need more than 100 per square mile.

We've heard a lot of anecdotal stories that municipal Wi-Fi networks are not living up to their billing, as users find the networks to be much slower than hoped and subject to weak coverage. But, compared to cell networks, they're actually much faster and cover their areas almost as well, a report from consulting firm Novarum finds, says InfoWorld.

Novarum tested Wi-Fi, WiMax and 3G and found Wi-Fi is generally faster where it's available. Wi-Fi systems are also fairly widely available, Novarum found. Using a test of whether a strong enough signal was available to do work on a laptop, the study found networks in Anaheim, Santa Clara and Mountain View, CA, all were available in 70 percent or more of Novarum's test area. One network, in St. Cloud, Florida, was 100 percent available.

Cell networks? 86 percent available on average, but the reality was worse than that .

True 3G was available only 58 percent of the time, while in other areas the carriers filled in with lower speed services. Whereas 3G ran at 300K bps (bits per second) to 400K bps downstream in Novarum's tests, 2.5G alternatives offered only a fraction of that. The 2.5G version of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), called EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution), proved fine for using data applications on phones but inadequate for standard PC applications, Belanger said.

Public Wi-Fi is twice as good as even true 3G, offering 869K bps downstream and 256K bps upstream on average.

Two closely watched city Wi-Fi networks also came out with high marks: EarthLink Inc.'s system in Philadelphia delivered 1.5M bps downstream, though it was only 50 percent available on the proof-of-concept network where the testing was done. Google Inc.'s Mountain View network scored 70 percent for availability.

So how should cities design their networks to keep users happy? Pack in a lot of access points, Novarum's Phil Belanger said. Suburban networks need 35 to 40 nodes per square mile, cities more than 100. Toronto's network, which delivered wired broadband-quality speeds had 126 nodes in a one-square-mile area.

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