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August 16, 2005

Designing a Metropolitan Strategy for Wireless in Cleveland

For over a year,I have been asked by friends and colleagues across the city, around the region, and all over the country and beyond to put a stake in the ground on the so-called great metropolitan wireless debate. I've resisted for what I thought were appropriate concerns about our local effort. However, with some huge news about to be shared here in Cleveland this week, I think it's time to lay out the argument for what we might look forward to in the build out of a true metropolitan-wide wireless strategy here in Cleveland and as a possible model for the others to consider. This is a long treatment (10 pages) and I apologize in advance to those who are just interested in the bottom line (you'll find it towards the end ;-)

Technology Does Matter

This week, OneCleveland unveils BIG news with its community partners and Intel Corporation. Once again the OneCleveland will be thrust into the limelight as an example of an innovative, community-oriented technology platform for collaboration and economic development.

Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland’s University Circle has served as a launching point for both OneCleveland’s technology platform as well as a model for the collaboration and breakthrough application development. Over the past 18-24 months other powerful community networking partnerships have developed. The result of the innovative community networking model, riding on top of one of the most robust wired networks in the world, has engendered a sense of the possible and even our ability to take these collaborations to the edge of the possible. Even though there are always institutional barriers to collaboration, communities, cities, and associations all over the world marvel at the continuing hard work and outcomes associated with OneCleveland and its partnerships in higher education, research, health care, K-12 education, libraries, museums, public television and radio, regional transportation services, cities, counties, and statewide activities.

The technological foundation of OneCleveland originates in an architecture developed at Case Western Reserve University with a group of strategic technology alliance partners and later modified by OneCleveland and its own strategic technology partnership with Cisco Systems and IBM Global Services. The gigabit optical networking infrastructure of OneCleveland connects all of OneCleveland’s subscribers to each other in what can be thought of as a campus typology. The OneCleveland technical architecture connects our community assets to each other at unprecedented speeds in one of the world’s largest and fastest intranets. The optical gigabit networking infrastructure enables us not only to send email, IM, and surf the web at mind boggling speeds, the network has been designed to provoke and enable application development that take full advantage of the cyberinfrastructure possibilities of the 21st century. We are poised to illustrate health care collaborations leading the nation in the exploration of transportable electronic medical records fully linked to not only the written medical record but to vital information contained in Xrays, MRIs, and soon even more advanced visualization tools. The Cleveland Clinic, Metro Health, Summa Health Care and soon other health care researchers and providers will all be on OneCleveland. At the other end of the spectrum OneCleveland will enable and make possible the development of next generation, advanced and fully immersive gaming and virtual reality environments. Until network infrastructure is as robust and big as OneCleveland (See Figure 1.0), most gaming environments are either standalone, console based experiences or, more recently, highly compromised online experiences with compression algorithms trading off functionality and interactive experiences. With leadership within the City of Cleveland and the emerging gaming development community in Cleveland, Cleveland’s R&D efforts in Cleveland will make possible a whole new generation of gaming and VR environments where network speeds are actually 10 times and more faster than the computer processing units on today’s fastest computers. In the emerging environment the network really will be where intelligence and fun happens.

Figure 1.0

All of the above description and verbiage is made in order to make a simple point in the context of the so-called great debate over wireless strategies in Cleveland and elsewhere around the nation. The bottom line is that there is no strategy for wireless deployment worth calling “a strategy” with out a well designed, architected and managed wired network foundation.

Wireless Technology Arch of Tomorrow

The great debate on wireless frameworks across the USA is ill-informed and has largely been hijacked by titans on various sides of the so-called debate for narrow and poorly defined self-interested ends. Defensive posturing, illusions of grandeur, poorly thought through business models, scare mongering, and banal hyperbole from industry supported hacks masquerading as analysts are all part of the toxic mix that is creating very little more than noise. There is no doubt that the stakes are high. However, any intelligent public debate needs to start with some sense of the “IT”. What is the so-called great debate about? Supposedly it is about wireless technology.

A quick look at Figure 1.0 above gives us a sense of the tiered bandwidth available for both consumers and public/commercial customers. One important qualification that is important to understand is that some of the bandwidth can be divided into dedicated express lanes for accessing resources and services. This kind of bandwidth is known as “switched” bandwith. Other kinds of bandwidth can only be described as sharing the highway with drivers and cars with blindfolds on and no steering wheels. This kind of bandwidth is not surprisingly known as “shared” bandwidth. The point is that one kind of bandwidth has highly advanced and precise engineering capacity for moving resources and services around (switched) and the other kind of bandwidth is more or less a cacophony of noise with different kinds of requests for services having very little way of being prioritized or segmented between data, voice, or video (for example).

For the past decade, switched networks and electronics that send along intelligent directions to packets trying to move along the network have become the preferred network design. Think about the experience in your wired connection options at home. DSL services are switched services. If you subscribe to a service for 1 Mb/s (take a look at figure 1.0) you are going to get a “pipe” or a “highway lane” that is just about 1 Mb/s. If you subscribe to a shared service like Cable Modem technology, you may subscribe to a 1 Mb/s service but your throughput or the size of the “pipe” or “highway lane” will vary by the consumption patterns of your neighbors. Sometimes you will find yourself with constrained access because your neighbors are downloading music, video, or other internet services. The only way around this “constrained” environment in a shared environment is for your ISP to go out and find a bigger pipe. Indeed, this is what has the core strategy for both shared and switched service providers. Why is this relevant to a discussion about wireless services?

Well, the most important technical insight for wireless services is that to date almost all wireless (wi-fi) services are largely “shared” networks (although some modest channel tuning abilities do exist). In 1998 the standard commercial shared service model was 2 Mb/s. That is, if you opened up your laptop, the connection between your computer and the wireless access point was shared with everyone else seeking access and the total available bandwidth was only 2 Mb/s (minus quite a bit of so-called overhead which really meant that back then we were sharing less than 1.5Mb/s (take a look again at figure 1). In 2001 we took a 5 fold increase in the shared bandwidth with the introduction of 802.11b wi-fi services. Again, all of that bandwidth is shared. As long as folks are just sending email to each other, maybe 15-20 persons could crowd onto the on-ramp and get their messages through. Using the on-ramp for listening to music reduced the available number of users to 5-7 users and if you wanted to watch video you’d be lucky to be able to share the available bandwidth with 2 wireless users. In 2003 we had another 5 fold increase with the introduction of 802.11a/g. We now have 55 Mb/s as pretty much the standard commodity services being deployed around both consumer and commercial/public installations. Again, all shared. By the end of 2006 (only 16 months away), a new standard will be readily available on the market, today known as 802.11n. This bandwidth will begin with another 5 fold increase to 300 Mb/s of sustained wi-fi access and within 30 months will reportedly support 500 Mb/s or half a gigabit per second (again look at the pipe size illustrated in figure 1). Again, given the shared environment, the core technology strategy for wireless has thus far been to find ways of shoving more bandwidth along the available radio frequency.

In my view, any community (or team) working on designing a metropolitan strategy for wireless services needs to be sure that they are planning a service strategy based on where we are going to be in 2007-2008. Failing to plan for a network support 500 Mb/s, with multiple tunable channels is both a poor technology choice and most important as I explore below creates a false set of assumptions that drives a poor set of public policy choices about what options exist for building out the infrastructure for next generation wireless services.

A Reality Check

Somewhere, in a quiet corner largely invisible in view of all the noise on center stage around metropolitan wireless deployments is an important reality. Today, no commercial telecommunications provider has deployed a wireless (wi-fi) infrastructure across a large metropolitan area. The same can be said of any city or regional authority. Indeed, no such infrastructure exists. Anywhere. There is simply no commercially viable way to deploy adequate infrastructure to make meaningful the hyped suggestion of being the “first” wireless city/region. For all the political noise, the reality is that the economics of deploying such an infrastructure with today’s technology is cost prohibitive. Yes, we can make available the equivalent of a chicken wire network using wi-fi technology and cobble together a network of networks with wi-fi repeaters but these services are narrowly deployed and in support of specific services.

Many traditional wireless carriers (cellular players) in metropolitan areas boast that they have an alternative, available today in which you can insert basically a cell phone into your notebook computer and for only $50-$100/month (or more depending on your minutes plan, plus of course the cell phone PCMCIA device) you can be online anywhere their coverage extends.

Parks, coffee shops, school yards, households, office buildings, ice cream stores, lecture halls, dorms, and even buses and other transportation services can support wireless services around defined geographies but at costs that are largely non-scalable to broader use on a predicable and sustainable manner. Yes, we can hang amplifiers and bridges outside schools yards, and whether we violate FCC regulations for this unlicensed spectrum, the truth is that the shared service model of this wireless model has both geographic limits as well as bandwidth constraints.

So, the bottom line is that though wireless is extremely cool and disruptive to existing business models it is simply not ready for primetime, large scale and pervasiv deployments across significant geographies today in support of broad application uses.

Having said as much, now is exactly the time to begin serious technical work on next generation wireless services, because the bandwidth and the reach of the next generation of access points is going to change everything. I mean everything.

Beyond Mesh and WiMax

There’s a huge marketing, technology, and standards battle brewing between proponents of two new technology strategies. One strategy seeks to connect existing wi-fi infrastructure through a strategy known as mesh which basically attempts to layer a spider web infrastructure on top of existing wireless access points in either a planned (known as infrastructure mode) or in an ad hoc manner (known as .. ad hoc). Of course all of our wireless notebooks and other wireless devices like cameras, projection systems and so forth can all be nodes on an ad hoc wireless infrastructure. The other approach basically argues that wi-fi is really a 50 year old technology (and it is) and that it was never built for enterprise (never mind metropolitan wide) roll out (which is true) and therefore the only rational thing to do is to replace it with a new technology built for the enterprise and metropolitan environment with varying degrees of backwards compatibility. There are a number of competing approaches to the new infrastructure approach. The current leading contender is called Wi-Max. Rationality is a relative thing especially in 2005 and it is hard to find examples where rational planning has actually won without lots of market hype and luck. The stakes are huge for lots of reasons.

One critical dimension is that the wi-fi world works and operates in what the FCC calls an unlicensed spectrum. The FCC has contributed to an explosion in nomadic computing by unregulating a part of the wireless spectrum and allowed wi-fi which has been around for a very long time to finally be enabled without monopoly behavior of network or computer device interests. The downside is that there is lots of potential for interference in the 2.4 and 5.0 GhZ part of the spectrum. Microwaves and wireless handsets interfering with your wireless notebook is only dimension of the unlicensed spectrum. The important thing to know is that use of the unregulated spectrum comes with a sold “as is” warning. It also is a part of the spectrum that no one, not even the powerful telecommunication companies own. So, that’s the trade off. It is even a more important consideration because the new infrastructure proposals like WiMax are very very likely to find themselves predominately located in the regulated part of the spectrum. This is the expressed interest of both the manufacturers of the silica as well as, of course, those who benefit from regulated service offerings. Those would be the folks who sell us monthly or minutes for access to the Internet. There are some important public interest alternatives. For example, OneCleveland is working with the spectrum holders here in Northeast Ohio of what is known as ITFS (instructional television fixed spectrum). It’s a long sorted story but the punch line is that here in Northeast Ohio, public broadcaster WVIZ, ideastream owns that spectrum in the public trust. We are working to develop a public interest Wi-Max solution in the region. Nearly every medium and large size community in the nation has ITFS spectrum available.

The important take away message for those interested in designing true metropolitan scale wireless solutions is that both the mesh and wi-max technology architectures intersect with the growing throughput of the wireless spectrum. There is, however, an even more important lesson here. Notwithstanding the hype of both commercial as well as community providers of internet services there are two truths that need to form the foundation of our strategy moving forward. First there really is no free lunch. There is no way to offer free public access to internet services without a thoughtful and integrated business plan that demonstrates an unequivocal commitment to principles of robust design, deployment, support, sustainability and refresh. For example, Google has been very public in its efforts to acquire a national advanced network infrastructure for its service offering. Google could, arguably, develop a business model to “give away” wireless services as a portal to its services portfolio backhauled over its wired network infrastructure. The second truth is simply that no single solution for wireless exists. This is more than the throw away line of the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ As I point out below, the invoking of a tiered approach to wireless build outs for connected communities is critical, even if it is a bit more difficult to explain and operate.

A Framework for Building Wireless Cleveland

The footprint for Wireless Cleveland, once fully built out, could touch more than 3 million persons distributed over more than 2000 square miles in 5 or more counties in Northeast Ohio (See Figure 2.0) below. The more than 1500 assets noted in figure 2.0 represent all the public sector organizations, institutions, and facilities that are eligible to join the OneCleveland initiative. Of course, the build out of such a bold initiative does not and can not happen all at once. However, it is important that we understand the requirements of what we can call the “omega” state, namely the final desired outcome fully supported in a production mode.

Figure 2.0


OneCleveland has fiber or access to fiber touching a large number of these public sector institutions. As already noted above, this is a critical precondition for success. It also helps readers understand one of the big differences between OneCleveland and most of the other community networks around the world. Our community not only owns its own fiber it also has the technical capacity to support the backhaul requirements to support nomadic computing across its footprint.

If we analyze other infrastructure players in the region we can see both the opportunity in front of us as well as the challenge. There are but a handful of other players with vision, mission, need, and capacity to roll out a wireless infrastructure for the region.

One critical set of potential players are the public identities with their needs to communicate across the region. These include EMS, public safety, fire, courts, and government general services. Many of them already have redundant, separate, tax payer paid for infrastructures for data, voice, and video communication. There is little or no reason to advocate for continuing build out of separate infrastructures. These are classic infrastructure builds associated with a culture and a technology paradigm that is entirely 19th and 20th century. Today’s technology, both on the wireline and wireless side can readily accommodate security and privacy requirements across a single infrastructure. The limits to an integrated strategy are no longer technological they are, not surprisingly about leadership, will, and bureaucratic imperatives associated with budget control and change management. A County or regional service provider (like water for example) can design a strategy to connect its various buildings to each other. But Wireless Cleveland is a strategy for connecting a mobile work force to each other and to the community. There is simply no way that a single organization can or should roll out this range of wireless services. There are other content providers who are in a second line of services and these include community players like education, research facilities, museums, libraries and the like. They too have a mission to not only “wire” their facilities but also an opportunity to re-invent and extend their service boundaries through leveraging, but also investing in this layer of transportation services.

A second set of potential collaborators are the commercial infrastructure players. These are the telecommunication companies, cable companies, and regional optical networking infrastructure players. As has already been pointed out, not one of the commercial players like SBC Ohio or Adelphia/Time Warner or even a regional player like First Communications has built out, nor in all likelihood will ever build out, an infrastructure to support a wireless canopy across the region.

Elsewhere across the nation, we see a rush by cities to publish RFPs to light up wireless infrastructure for cities. With a handful of noticeable exceptions such visions of wireless metropolitan areas are destined for failure and very poor public policy. Inappropriate technology choices (plan/design for yesterday), poorly designed business plans (or none at all), and regulatory nightmares are among the variables likely to contribute to what will be some short term headline grabbers and mid-range and long term technology headaches and disarticulated and conflicting public policy goals.

A proposal for a wireless OneCleveland might well call for the design, development, implementation, and management of a three-tier meshed wireless infrastructure supporting next generation wi-fi services delivering 540 Mb/s of throughput and interconnected to our Gigabit Ethernet infrastructure for communication within the region and with gateways to the internet for outbound traffic. We also need to stand firm on the technical principle that we need an integration and rationalization of other wireless communication protocols used across the region including the institutional uses including, but not limited to, those using free space optics (FSO), 800 and 900 MhZ towers, microwave transmission and newly proposed side spectrum of DTV channel owners in the public interest (See the work of the New America Foundation on DTV).

With respect to wi-fi, wireless OneCleveland’s design proposal should, in my view, call for a single, common build-out of a three-layer strategy including, first, institutional subscriber requirements, second, private sector commercial and consumer value-added service provider requirements, and finally, public interest requirements. This should be a non-exclusive design in which all commercial players should be invited to participate on the basis of a common mesh wireless strategy (and an agree to technical standard) for the region.

I would recommend that 40% of the available wireless bandwidth be assigned to the use of patrons, customers, workers, staff, and visitors to institutional subscribers to OneCleveland. These in turn might require some very important technical segmentation through channel tuning and VLAN architecture so that some of OneCleveland’s subscribers might be able to have “dedicated” access to something on the order of 200 Mb/s of wireless services. This is nearly 4 times our current standard (54 Mb/s) available bandwidth. Depending on the nature of the agreement, I think OneCleveland subscribers should be prepared to consider “giving away” their remaining wireless bandwidth within their facilities to the other two tiers in exchange for first, some discount on the build out (and refresh) of their facilities by OneCleveland authorized integrators, and second, so that they might enjoy 40% of the available bandwidth outside their facilities, across the region both inside other public buildings and outside in the wireless digital commons that we are proposing be built out. Of course, within commercial/private sector buildings there may be no need for this bandwidth allocation model given that public sector requirement will only be modest. However, in the mesh strategy some consideration may be necessary to maintain this allocation model in order to provide for a quality of services as packets are backhauled across public sector subscribers over the commercial access point and out over OneCleveland fiber to either the intranet or internet.

I would recommend that an additional 45% (or something on that order) of available wireless bandwidth (something like 220 Mb/s) be assigned to commercial infrastructure interests with an understanding that the allocation would be used for both corporate requirements as well as commercial and value-added consumer services. These tunable channels could be sold largely to support commercial requirements for inside buildings and outdoor access. Of course, mobile workers in the corporate/commercial world would be able to access their networked resources anywhere under the cloud whether they were inside their office buildings or elsewhere under the cloud. A simple OneCleveland wireless directory and provisioning service would allow folks to join either the commercial service, OneCeveland subscriber service (not-for-profit) or other forms of access (see below). Looking just over the horizon, there is a whole universe of services that will be made available over wireless bandwidth to individual consumers. These will be consumer services, like wi-fi phone services (with dual band access to your favorite cellular provider), two-way video conferencing over wi-fi, hundreds of new services from passive medical monitoring services to commercial massive player gaming environments that you want to play with while you’re on a wi-fi enabled RTA light rail or bus service. All of your access as a consumer, commercial, or corporate user would be made possible by commercial service providers.

Finally, I would recommend strongly that a 5% public interest set aside be an integral part of the wireless strategy in Cleveland from the outset. This public set aside, much as is allocated in the satellite industry and other spectrum allocations would be assigned in our region to address matters of social inclusion and the welfare of our community. This shared service layer will serve as an equivalent to a public bicycle lane for general access and guest services across the region.

We need to find a way to “violently agree” that we should work together (both in the public and private arenas) to build only one infrastructure for the region. A public-private compact should be consummated between all the interested and vested parties to build out the infrastructure. Multiple options for managing parts of the wireless infrastructure should be part of the agreement. The work underway right now in building out Vancouver’s Digital Muse might serve as a basis for the investment/management opportunities. Of course, countless new opportunities for new devices, applications, and related services over the infrastructure will be possible in support of our regional economic strategy.

Any number of use cases will need to be developed to discuss, among other things:

(1) an identity management schema to facilitate provisioning of access to the community-wide wireless service offering
(2) security services
(3) joint technical architecture within the public private partnership
(4) a long term refresh strategy that anticipates 36-48 month refresh of the infrastructure
(5) a series of research and development facilities linked to application development on the network
(6) technical training for advanced service offerings on the network
(7) a community wide portal strategy
(8) social networking strategies of a connected community
(9) mentoring opportunities for our connected community
(10) assessment and evaluation criteria for helping to answer what difference all this will make to the quality of life.


To build out a broadband nation using wireless services requires us to think through the development of a digital commons. The philosopher John Locke made the point back in 1690 that “the only way by which anyone divests himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite in a community.” The goal of a OneCleveland wireless strategy should first and foremost be geared to repairing our sense of community by enabling new, richer, more compelling forms of communication. The goal of a OneCleveland wireless strategy is not separate, above, beyond the overall goal of OneCleveland namely to use a mix of advanced technologies to connect, enable, and transform the community. A OneCleveland wireless network should be a multi-user, mulit-purpose infrastructure that meets multiple needs across the community while remaining robust, secure, and reliable. Commercial interests need to engage in public and community affairs. At the same time, public interests need to be strive to become more entrepreneurial, nimble and customer focused. If we attempt to build out a city-wide wireless infrastructure today, with opposing strategies, exclusive arrangements, and traditional zero-sum attitudes, we will fail. That is the story most everywhere acoss this country. There are no guarantees that following the proposed integrated, three-tier model will lead to success, however, the project and the outcome represent a bold, model for addressing a national challenge. The United States needs a national strategy for broadband. We have gone from fourth in the world to sixteenth and we are tumbling towards falling out of the top 20. A national policy should be built on the basis of strong community models. A OneCleveland wireless strategy, such as the one outlined above, provides one such framework for community discussion and deliberation.

Lev Gonick, Cleveland Ohio, August 15, 2005.

Posted by lsg8 at August 16, 2005 06:42 PM and tagged Bytes 

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