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Thus: "Wi-Fi Should come with a government health warning"
Wednesday 22 October 2003 16:24:00 by Sebastien Lahtinen

In a recent press release, Thus is claiming that industry commentators are predicting a dot com-style crash of wireless service providers because the technology has no proven market. It goes further to suggest that not only does it believe the market to be immature, but that the technology is "inherently flawed" as there is no way to guarantee a consistent quality of service and its use is likely to encounter regulatory problems. This applies to all uses of wireless technology including offices, but primarily targeted at hotspots and other public WiFi. Campaigners for rural broadband reliant on wireless technology beg to differ and challenge Thus to provide a wired broadband service in rural areas.

The track record so far is far from perfect, the demise of Invisible Networks being a good example, but are the problems we are seeing only a sign of the lack of management experience in these smaller companies, or a sign that the technology isn't up to the job?

A bubble about to burst?

Steve Kennedy, head of product futures as Thus Plc raises several concerns over the interference and security that are going to hamper these becoming a mainstream broadband delivery system:

"Most WiFi networks in the UK operate in the 2.4GHz band, a very congested spectrum that is already used for applications like Bluetooth, surgical devices, industrial machinery and microwave ovens. A network based on WiFi has to share the spectrum not only with other Wireless LANs (WLAN), but also with all these other applications. This means that there are no guarantees that a WLAN will work in a built-up area. If it does work, the usable bandwidth may be very low as all the other devices are interfering with it. A business trying to connect staff to the LAN or to another building may find that at certain times of the day the WLAN will not provide any bandwidth. This means it is impossible to offer Quality of Service guarantees."

Erol Ziya, co-founder of the Access to Broadband Campaign strongly opposes this view suggesting that the fact the 2.4GHz spectrum is unlicensed is not a weakness, and interference in non-dense areas such as rural communities is far less likely to be a problem, precisely where wireless is bringing broadband and always-on access to users who have no other choices.

THUS also raises concerns over the security, or more precisely, the lack thereof citing that many users don't even use WEP level encryption which itself can be easily broken. This coupled with the increasing regulation of the 2.4GHz band and the complications it involves are cited as reasons that it cannot become widestream in the delivery of broadband services.

"WiFi can offer a useful solution for specific networking requirements. But it is a developing and imperfect technology. It has inherent weaknesses and offers only a fraction of the capacity and security of wired networks. Consider also the fact that service providers will need to be very careful to stay within the law and you realise that at the moment WiFi ought to come with a Government health warning. Of course rural areas are probably less prone to interference from other WiFi activity as there will not be any. However it is important that a rural WiFi service is provided by a licensed service provider which can overcome the power issues that otherwise limit the distance WiFi can travel."

Steve Kennedy, THUS PLC

Joel Smith of Digital Dales acknowledges that WEP is not particularly secure but dismisses the argument that this makes wireless networks unsuitable for broadband: "Any network technology is open to security flaws. An ethernet network can be snooped by any user with freely available tools. Any sensitive data should be secured by an appropriate encryption scheme. WEP is a red herring. Any authorised user will be able to see the traffic as they will have the keys. However, if the network traffic is encrypted end to end, then the issue of eavesdropping becomes immaterial. It is possible to see the packets, but not possible to see the information contained within. This is why online banking is done using SSL encrypted secure web servers. You never know who might be listening in."

Red Tape

In response to THUS comments about the regulatory issues affecting wireless networks (specifically the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIP), the Data Protection Act (DPA) among others), Erol Ziya points out these are problems every ISP faces and are by certainly not limited to Wi-Fi. "..where regulation is a barrier to competition then regulation needs to be changed. Regulation serves the interests of society. It is not there to undermine it."

Rural broadband campaigner Lindsey Annison (Co-founder ABC; Digital Dales) does admit regulation does pose some problems and goes on strongly criticises the Radiocommunications Agency for its failure to trial other spectrums as well as examining the power regulations that govern equipment in the 2.4GHz spectrum. In rural areas, the interference between different users of unlicensed spectrums is far less significant so the BSG are calling for trials allowing higher power transmission equipment to be used to bridge the gaps and lower the costs of delivering wireless to communities which now struggle even to get an open phone line or a mobile phone signal.

"The Radiocommunications Agency has proved singularly incapable of providing any helpful response on the two key issues - lack of unlicensed or light licensed spectrum other than 2.4GHz, and power regulations. This lack of spectrum continues to prohibit development of the wireless world, particularly in the UK even though the Broadband Stakeholders Group has repeatedly iterated the social and economic importance of wireless. It will change because it will have to if UK PLC wants to join in this global competitive marketplace created by the Internet and broadband."

Lindsey Annison, Digital Dales


"Wi-fi offers users a chance to not be at the commercial mercy of operators. Yes, it offers less capacity and is easier to intercept than wired based systems. In balance to this is that only companies like Thus can offered wired solutions. End users can offer wireless solutions. This benefit outweighs the disadvantages many many times. Just as the disadvantages of the PC (less powerful, less secure) were outweighed by the huge advantage of being able to do with the computer what you wanted when you wanted and in ways you wanted, and to not be at the mercy of historic gatekeepers (mainframe departments). The same advantages apply to wifi and as long as companies like Thus continue to operate like old mainframe departments did ([you can have what we say you need and when we say you need it, not what you say you need when you say you need it]) the future of wifi is as guaranteed as the future of the PC was when it was a 'new and unproven technology'. I heard all the same arguments from old mainframe people back then as to why PC's should 'come with a government warning', why they would never be useful, why they were too limited to be of use, why they were too insecure etc etc. The fact is those people were wrong back then and Steve [Kennedy] is wrong now."

Erol Ziya, Access to Broadband Campaign

All in all these views may not be as disparate as they initially seem. Both ends of the spectrum agree that current 2.4GHz wireless ranges can get crowded in densely populated areas and even THUS acknowledge that wireless "can offer a useful solution for specific networking requirements". Rural broadband campaigners would like nothing more than welcome fibre at their door but being realistic, they consider wireless to provide an appropriate solution until this happens (which might be a long time away.)

Do you believe wireless is a patched solution to a currently imperfect broadband delivery system or do you think it is an innovative way to deliver broadband threatening the traditional monopolies, discuss on our Wireless forum. [seb]

Links: Thus PLC
Access to Broadband Campaign
Broadband Stakeholder Group
Digital Dales

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