Why is this page text-only?

« No State Can Afford To Outlaw Municipal Broadband | Main | The Unintended Consequences of the Broadband Stimulus »

April 27, 2009 12:09 PM

Why I Don't Trust Wireless Networks Anymore

In January I joined the iPhone Nation. And for the most part it's been a life-changing experience. Prior to this my cellphones had just been cellphones, so having access to email, Google Maps, and webpages while on the go has been a revelation that I now wonder how I once lived without.

But I'm forced to say "for the most part" due to a series of experiences that highlight why I'm wary of anyone claiming that wireless is the ultimate future of broadband.

Over the last three months I've had at least three scenarios where it didn't work, not because of anything wrong with the iPhone itself but instead because of the failure of AT&T;'s network to deliver data.

The first has been an ongoing struggle to get it to work while on the Hill during my guerrilla lobbying runs. In particular while in Senate and House office buildings, data transfer gets very sluggish. While it hasn't crapped out on me entirely, it's often unusable. And that slowdown sometimes extends to even when I'm outside so it's not just about wireless signals having issues getting through the marbled walls of power.

The second was my first acute network failure. I attended the opening game for the Washington Nationals, and my iPhone stopped working entirely. It wasn't just that I couldn't check my email, I couldn't send text messages. I couldn't make phone calls. Sure I could still play checkers, but anything that relied on the network stopped working. I eventually found a corner of the stadium where I could get some connectivity, but even then it was hit or miss. Occasionally stuff would get through, other times not.

The third and most recent instance was a series of failures while enjoying myself at Festival International de Louisiane down in Lafayette, LA last week. Multiple times in different areas around the festival (which included five stages of music spread across downtown) I ran into the same network failure. I could still make phone calls, but I couldn't send text messages, couldn't access email, and couldn't get online.

During one of these episodes I was sitting beside David Isenberg, and this experience led him to write a tremendous blog post entitled "When is normal use a DOS attack?"

He makes a number of highly salient points in this post in that there's something wrong when normal usage has the same impact taking down a network that a coordinated denial of service attack has.

Now I know some may argue that the extremely high density of people all trying to use these same wireless networks at the same time doesn't qualify as "normal usage" but let's consider that a bit further.

In the Capitol Hill example, that's very much an every day issue. Sluggish connectivity has hit me on multiple days in multiple locations in and around the Hill.

In the Nationals example, sure the stadium was much fuller than normal since it was Opening Day, but network operators should know that having tens of thousands of people all wanting to get online in the same location is going to happen at least 80 days a year for baseball games alone so it's not like they couldn't plan for it.

And in the Lafayette example, Festival is by far their biggest event of the year, so while it's understandable why a network operator may not want to invest in sufficient capacity to handle that spike in usage that will only last for a few days, at the same time it's not like they didn't know this was coming.

These instances all highlight the same undeniable fact: wireless fails when too many people in the same location are trying to get online at the same time. It doesn't just get slower; it can outright stop working.

Also, these examples show how it's difficult to build wireless networks that can support large spikes in simultaneous usage.

And remember, these spikes in usage were driven almost entirely by mobile phone usage. Imagine what would be happening if everyone were also trying to use wireless broadband to connect their desktops and laptops as well!

If wireless can't even support the demands of the iPhone, how can we responsibly rely on it to handle all Internet traffic?

Finally, as a note to AT&T;, from a customer perspective these experiences were so absurd as to be surreal. Here I had the most advanced phone on the planet in my hand, only I couldn't use it as a phone. Here i had the most advanced mobile computer, and yet I could check my email. It honestly made me want to throw my iPhone into oncoming traffic in frustration. Though I wasn't frustrated with Apple or the phone itself as I know these issues weren't their fault. The blame from my perspective as a consumer fell solely on the shoulders of AT&T.;

And that's really bad news for AT&T.; While they're the only ones who can offer the iPhone in the US, most iPhone users I know love the phone but don't particularly like AT&T.; This suggests that if AT&T; were to lose its exclusive iPhone deal and/or if another phone were to come about that could be a true competitor to the iPhone, that these network failures could cause AT&T; Wireless customers to flee in droves.

And on a higher level, I can't see these network failures on the Hill doing anything good for engendering good will among policymakers towards AT&T.;

So I encourage AT&T; to work diligently and speedily to resolve these issues. If you're going to build your business based on mobile access, then those mobile networks need to be resilient and reliable.

And to policymakers, take note of what's happening with these wireless networks as demand for the iPhone grows. There are lessons to be learned here about the limitations of wireless access in general as no matter the wireless technology they all suffer from the same issues if too many people in the same area try to get online at the same time.

And I can't accept that what's best for America is a broadband future that can't be relied on.

Del.icio.us Digg Yahoo! My Web Seed Newsvine reddit Technorati


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)