On Dave’s Solution to “Bandwidth Poverty”

Today, Dave Wiener describes the “bandwidth poverty” in NYC, where most people are stuck with asymmetrical cable internet connections (as are most people in the US). His solution isn’t laying more fiber, it is blanketing the city with WiFi.

Dave is a smart guy, but I’m going to dismiss this as another example of his “bandwidth ignorance,” like his initial dismissal of the network neutrality issue years ago.  (This isn’t to fault Dave, he’s just concerned with different parts of the “stack.” The abstractions that Dave works with are grockable, but like most abstractions, they start to leak.)

  1. WiFi hotspots have limited range.
  2. This isn’t actually a bad thing, because it limits the amount of interference between hotspots.
  3. It means though that there will have to be a lot of hotspots.
  4. Unfortunately, there are already a lot of WiFi hotspots in Manhattan.
  5. Unfortunately there is already a lot of interference among WiFi hotspots in Manhattan.
  6. Interference limits the reliability and overall throughput available through WiFi hotspots.
  7. What is going to connects all those new hotspots to the Internet?  It’s still probably going to come down to getting fiber to places that don’t have fiber already.
  8. Who is going to do it? Google?  Ok, just remember, their interests don’t always align with those of individual users and consumers.
On the other hand, a really big, managed WiFi build out might render many of the existing WiFi hotspots unnecessary, which could reduce the interference issues. Of course, in practice, many/most of them would probably stay in use.

I’d love to find a solution, but I don’t think we can rely on any big companies to bring it on their own. Citizens needs to come together to put pressure on policy-makers, who either need to make it a public utility, or need to manage competition among private companies in a way that works better for citizens.

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