Guest Blogger Esme Vos: How Highspeed Wireless Broadband (Wi-Fi) Can Help Economically Depressed Communities

As my survey on broadband’s impact on economic development (sponsored by the International Economic Development Council – IEDC) wraps up, I want to spotlight one of the topics covered in the survey. The role of wireless is important, and here’s Muniwireless.com founder and industry maven Esme Vos with valuable insight on why you should consider WiFi in your broadband plans.

The economic crisis has devastated many communities, but the hardest hit are located in regions that have relied on manufacturing and farming as their primary sources of income. How does fast Wi-Fi help economically depressed communities?

There’s no doubt that high speed broadband is a necessity today, much as roads, bridges and railways were in the past century. Without broadband, it is nearly impossible to sell your goods and services beyond the limits of your town. Even porter guides for the Annapurna Trail in Nepal have Facebook accounts to keep in touch with their clients, urge them to come back and refer new clients to them.

Therefore, communities must try to get as much broadband as they can, in the cheapest way possible. Most communities cannot afford to bring fiber to every home even if that is the broadband nirvana that we all aspire to. Since the start of the economic crisis, it has been even more difficult to find financing for broadband projects (outside the federal stimulus grants).

Thankfully, recent developments in Wi-Fi technology have made the deployment of a fast, wireless broadband network much more affordable. Of course the community must have some kind of high speed backhaul (a small fiber ring, point-to-point or point-to-multipoint connections to a fiber network), but the costs of these backhaul links are also dropping dramatically.

Today, a community looking to deploy a large scale Wi-Fi network must use the latest 802.11n access points because they dramatically improve throughput and decrease latency in the network (see the summary of a report published by Novarum, an independent testing agency). Now that many wireless vendors have been launching 802.11n products, the prices are tumbling, making the rollout of these networks so much more affordable than in the past.

Novarum has written an excellent 8-page white paper titled “2010: Guidelines for Successful Large Scale Outdoor Wi-Fi Networks” which contains recommendations to municipalities and service providers on what makes a successful large-scale outdoor Wi-Fi network today. These recommendations are based upon Novarum’s work between 2006 and 2009 testing over 175 wireless networks in 36 North American cities. Their tests unequivocally show that Wi-Fi beats WiMAX and 3G in performance and cost of deployment.

Why am I emphasizing the performance (higher throughput, lower latency, lower jitter) of the network? Because many of the applications used today by companies and entrepreneurs (even people selling goods and services out of their homes) need good network performance. Video, chat and voice over IP are especially sensitive to latency and jitter. For these applications, the lower the latency and the jitter, the better.

1. If a community wants its residents to have the skills that employers find desirable, those residents need to be able to take online courses, to download and read e-books, and view online course videos. They need high speed broadband with low latency and jitter to be able to accomplish these tasks.

2. A recent study conducted by SNG Group on broadband skills revealed the types of applications that companies around the world are implementing and upgrading:

  • website with enhanced features (used in retail, professional and technical services, health care and social assistance);
  • accounting and finance systems: professional and technical services, retail, health care, construction);
  • payment and billing: health care, financial services, insurance, retail, construction, manufacturing;
  • human resource and payroll systems: financial services, health care, insurance, retail, professional and technical services, construction.

That means these firms will be hiring people to develop and maintain these software programs, and will expect new hires to be comfortable with working on these applications. People who have no access to high speed broadband will have little experience working on applications that are similar to the ones mentioned above. Therefore, they will be less desirable candidates for employment and are much harder to train.

All of these applications require that their users have high speed broadband connections because they are hosted on servers in different parts of the country or the world (“cloud computing”). If a person is hired by a company to process insurance claims, he or she will be expected to have a reliable and robust enough connection to log onto the claims processing application and do the work that is required.

What if a community wants to attract large companies to establish offices in their locale but the companies want very high speed connections, the type that requires fiber networks? That is the point at which the community must decide whether to make that investment in more fiber connections (not necessarily fiber to the home, but fiber to the companies’ premises). But this is no different than investments made in new office parks or technology parks to attract high tech or bio tech industries. The advantage of laying all this fiber is that the community can use it as backhaul for even more Wi-Fi connections outdoors and indoors for the residents, schools and local government.

Finally let me mention one trend that shows no sign of slowing down: accessing the Internet and online applications from anywhere. iPhones, Android phones, the iPad, and the iPod Touch are very popular in large part because they let people do what they do on their desktop and laptop computers, everywhere they go. That is why people – especially on iPhones – look for Wi-Fi. It’s almost always faster than 3G and more reliable.

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