Wireless, Wireless Everywhere

European wireless editor Guy Kewney looks at a proposal to turn all the roadways across the pond into one massive, eavesdropping wireless hotspot.

A European plan to bring wireless to every inch of every highway could spell the end for an awful lot of wireless Internet service providers (WISPs). Then again, pricing could head north and kill this telemetry plan before it gets into first gear.

The plan is being advanced in several European countries, with Japan following suit, and it involves bringing safety equipment into the wireless age. Just about any piece of roadside furniture - traffic lights, street lights, sign-posts – that has power would be turned into the hub of a wireless access point.

The only questions, of course, are what frequency and what wireless technology to use. And, from some offers for quotation that Ive seen, its starting to look like 63 GHz is going to get the nod - not just because it allows governments to monitor traffic down to the engine condition of each vehicle, but because it has so much bandwidth capacity that it can be used for dozens of other things.

And yet... it is starting to look as if even this ubiquitous wireless system may not be the cheapest possible solution.

A colleague, just back from Japan, was stopped outside a railway station in Tokyo, and reports that he very nearly emigrated right away. "It was a Yahoo Japan special offer," he reported. "They were offering a wireless router to hang onto the end of a perfectly normal 26 Mbps broadband service which people in the area could all receive anyway. Including the router, the cost was less than I pay for a 512 Kbps broadband service in the UK."

The key to bringing down prices, and the key to providing faster service, is ubiquity. What the traffic monitoring scheme will do, when it goes ahead, is bring Japanese-like levels of ubiquity to broadband with an available router everywhere.

In Japan, the key to these low prices seems to be clear enough. In a country where most phone systems were installed long after the Strowger revolution, there was no point in building a huge phone exchange building to house hundreds of operators. Instead, domestic phone systems went in with a local switch parked on top of the telegraph pole to serve all local houses on a the street.

The result: very short runs from the "exchange" to the consumer, and the ability to get correspondingly high data rates - which, obviously, become harder to achieve the further you are away from the signal.

The parallel with "a wireless node in every lamp post" looks pretty obvious. What isnt obvious, however, is how the aggregate bandwidth math works out.

The telemetry and messaging system proposed looks as if it will be based on intellectual property developed over the last three years by startup company Last Mile Communications simply because it has all the bases covered.

Its wireless technology in the initial version involves "shaped" footprint radios capable of feeding every user within 200 feet or so of the mast with 40 Mbps. Later, the technologists at Last Mile think theyll crank this up to 200 Mbps or more per second per user. What makes it frightening for established (or nearly-established, perhaps one should say!) WISPs is the fact that the systems would be subsidized by the needs of the road traffic authorities.

Governments all around the world are looking to monitor what happens on the roads, and its clear that the dream will eventually be "no-driver" freeways, and perhaps one day, even neighborhood traffic could be automated. But thats just a dream. For now what isnt a dream is the ability to track each and every vehicle, measure its speed, monitor its state of mechanical health, and just as important, give feedback to the drivers.

Accidents will happen. If all cars are equipped with telematics, as soon as one of them is involved in a crash, accelerometers will report the incident to the nearest lamp post. That node will immediately notify all other nodes in range. Within a second, the whole highway will be aware - so to speak - of the need to re-direct traffic around the snarlup. Data will be virtually instantly fed back to the vehicles behind the incident, and in-car navigation systems will be given alternative routes. And of course, traffic that was traveling fast will be given an instant new speed limit to avoid pileups.

Bids for this sort of equipment are being scanned right now. Contracts will start being rolled out in 2004-5 and services will be progressively enabled. Thats all a done deal. What comes as a surprise is the amount of bandwidth left over.

According to the founders, the highway agencies will need only around 5 percent of the total bandwidth. As a rule of thumb, the cost of rolling this out (hardware, ignoring labor) is around $200-$300 per lamp post; Last Mile reckons that the contractor should be able to recoup that cost within six months by providing neighborhood wireless.

"The idea that there can be some kind of land grab by wireless pioneers needs revisiting," opined Antony Abell, CEO of Last Mile. "We have high-cost ISPs asking absurd subscription fees for access to wireless Internet nodes in what they call key locations - airports, train stations, shopping malls, and so on. But this is all license-free wireless; nobody needs permission to erect an access point, and nobody else can prevent them from operating a rival service."

Because of the ability of these wireless lamp posts to intermesh with each other, the roadside telematics network is supplier-agnostic. In one street, the backhaul can be provided by the local phone company. Perhaps in the next it could be the local police station. In a third it could be a satellite provider. All will talk to each other at the node level, integrating and routing data wherever it is needed.

Rival data carriers wont sit down and watch while their market is taken away, of course. At first sight, it looks as if the roadside network will not be ideal for voice traffic, even using VoIP technology - but the tolerance exhibited by cellular phone users for bad quality connections means that nobody is altogether sure what "ideal" means. So it can be predicted that the telcos will respond by investing heavily in rival local high-speed routers - along the Japanese lines - providing 100 Mbps to each building, and leasing wireless services on the end - something which should be profitable over the long life-time of such an installation.

At the end of the day, which will be the most successful, the new roadside network, or the beefed-up telco line? Impossible to say, surely. But we can predict where the battle will be fought: reliability, latency, bandwidth, and "other services."

Amongst those, of course, will be local advertising. And as any publisher will warn you, the advertising market is volatile, variable, competitive, occasionally very profitable, and frequently, a black hole for investment of unwise dollars. The next three years could be fun!