BT Wireless@Telco 2.0; Getting away from "Why-Fi"

On the Digital Cities track at Telco 2.0 today, Dave Hughes, BT's boss of wireless access networks, was talking about
the importance of pragmatism and the difficulties metro-WLANs face in cities that don't have an American grid plan.

It's well known that there have been a succession of metro-WLAN deployments that have gone bad; the sector's icon, the Google-championed San Francisco deployment, is currently stalled after EarthLink pulled out. And Hughes offered a quick review of dozens of press reports on failed projects. Typically, they launch in a burst of hacker idealism and city-booster hype, but soon discover that radio engineering is actually quite hard, a point IT people seem to have to learn the hard way.

But there's worse; what about the economics?

Free access is suggested, but the costs are already running way ahead of budget as more and more access points are required. Various fancy schemes are thought of; in San Francisco it was a choice of ads or direct payment. But what kind of ads? Are you suggesting inserting them into other people's web pages? And so on. As Dave Hughes points out, you need an anchor tenant to support the deployment before you can think about anything else.

BT, Hughes points out, has successfully deployed a lot of WLANs across the UK; he attributes success to the decision
that BT itself would be the main tenant, charging users for service in the normal way. In a neat touch, BT's subscriber base are the main market; BT DSL subscribers now get WLAN access as part of the total proposition.

This raises an important point; Hughes was clear that BT's Wireless Cities program is a complement to fixed-line broadband, not a substitute. Especially in cities where the street plan isn't conveniently rectangular, access points have to be placed often enough that they depend on good fixed access, rather than replacing it. And if the wireless traffic really cranks up...will we need to get the fibre in anyway to backhaul it?