I recently read an article about a town in California that has deployed a Wi-Fi network that covers most of its downtown area. Is this an application we're likely to see in the future? What do you think of Wi-Fi for wide area networking?

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Wi-Fi coverage of metropolitan areas is definitely on the rise. Wireless access community projects exist in many cities big and small, including San Francisco, New York City, and Portland. Commercial ventures to cover cities with wireless hotspots also exist. For example, Cometa Networks plans to deploy a national U.S. network of hotspots to enable wireless Internet access from anywhere within a five-minute walk in downtown areas or within a five-minute drive elsewhere.

Efforts like these create hotspots, but Wi-Fi is still really a local area network technology with cells that span no more than several hundred feet. 802.11b and g have at most three non-overlapping channels, which limits bandwidth and user density at any given location. Companies and universities can use Wi-Fi to create blanket coverage across larger privately-owned areas by carefully placing access points to minimize overlap and co-channel interference. However, because Wi-Fi occupies unlicensed spectrum, blanketing an entire town -- even a small town -- is much harder. Businesses and homes that deploy their own access points will interfere with each other and with any commercial or community efforts.

As a result, I think there will continue to be a growing number of discrete Wi-Fi hotspots, but probably not uniform, ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage across many cities or regions. Technologies like 802.16 wireless MANs that are designed to reach longer distances and use licensed spectrum are better candidates for providing blanket commercial coverage across large public areas.

This was first published in May 2003

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