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Municipal Networks and the Future of Wi-Fi Hotspots

| Written by Christopher | No Comments | Updated on May 29, 2014 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/municipal-networks-and-the-future-of-wi-fi-hotspots/

This is a guest post from Jacob Levin – an advocate for a new economy that regenerates people, place and planet. Growing up as the son of an FCC official, dinner conversations often drifted towards tales of how incumbent ISPs were unfairly leveraging their political and economic power to reduce competition. He’s done policy research for Public Knowledge, One Economy Corporation and Skype, and has worked on research and development for Republic Wireless.

This work has led him to believe that community control of communications infrastructure is the only way to protect freedom of expression in a digital age. He’s an aspiring peasant, and an active member of the Open Masters project, dedicated to creating effective learning communities for people pursuing learning goals outside of traditional education institutions.

This is not your parents’ Wi-Fi. The latest generation of Wi-Fi networks are not only faster and more reliable, they come with some backend changes that community networks can take advantage of. In particular, something called Hotspot 2.0 will allow authorized devices to seamlessly connect to secure Wi-Fi networks, much like mobile phones already do on cellular networks.

Hotspot 2.0 is a new initiative of the Wi-Fi alliance that will bring cellular-like roaming experiences onto Wi-Fi networks. As access points begin to support the Hotspot 2.0 standard, mobile devices will be able to automatically select appropriate Wi-Fi networks and provide stored credentials. No more manually searching through available networks and punching in passwords. The cable industry is betting heavily on Hotspot 2.0, with plans to provide credentials to cable subscribers that will allow them to roam onto any CableWi-Fi access point (including the routers they provide to their customers homes). This could allow cable companies to include mobile phone service in their bundles.

Any community fiber network can begin offering paid wireless service, or bundle wireless service in with existing internet, TV and phone service (like Cable is doing). They can put wireless nodes on top of telephone poles and/or ask wired subscribers to use routers that are pre-set to recognize municipal credentials.

But for those who don’t want to build or maintain a wireless network, Hotspot 2.0 will allow a wired network to offer a credential to its subscribers and establish roaming agreements with those operating wireless networks. For example, multiple communities with their own networks can allow free roaming across partner networks.

If the networks are comparable and there is a roughly similar mix of roaming, they may do it without charging each other. However, a metro center may ask a suburban county to pay in order to recognize the suburbs’ municipal credential, as generally, suburban residents spend more time in municipal areas than vice versa.

A community could create a program that ensured historically marginalized populations and those living in low income areas had a credential that would be honored by local businesses – to create more options for connectivity. Such a program would surely not be sufficient to provide optimal access but would be an improvement over the status quo.

The stunning success of Wi-Fi is leading to a problem in many communities. The more Wi-Fi operating on the same chunk of spectrum leads to inefficiency. But with HotSpot 2.0 and some coordination, neighborhoods could have better performance with fewer networks. FCC rules don’t allow anyone to forcible shut down a Wi-Fi router but a community network could reward those who cooperate with access to fiber backhaul, poles, etc., on favorable terms.

Here are some suggested preparations for the coming HotSpot 2.0 technology. Near-term actions:

  • Ensure new equipment has Hotspot 2.0 capabilities
  • Take inventory of private wireless networks in commonly trafficked areas

Medium-term actions:

  • Develop community network credentials
  • Approach local wireless providers about recognizing community network credentials
  • Create roaming agreements with other networks

Long-term actions:

  • Create credential to address digital divide issues
  • Take precautions to prevent tragedy of the commons