Wi-pocalypse Now


A confluence of factors is driving the spread of wireless “mesh networks” in North American cities, says a Canadian analyst.

These include new public safety applications, the proliferation of embedded-GPS devices, and innovative products that are completely changing the economics of wireless networking, said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal analyst, communications research at IDC Canada.

This isn’t years down the road, Surtees said. “It’s already here.”

Surtees was one of the presenters at the 1st Canadian Municipal Wireless Applications Conference & Exhibition held in Toronto this week.

The conference was organized by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), a network of Canadian companies whose mandate is to identify and lead on issues affecting the information and communications technology industry in this country.

Surtees talk was titled: Tele-pocalypes — Trends in Canadian Municipal Wireless Industry.

MUNI mesh drivers

Public safety apps such as wireless video surveillance in policing are fuelling the need for mesh networks in municipalities, Surtees said.

Wireless mesh networking refers to the routing of data, voice and instructions wirelessly between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until the destination is reached.

In the U.S., wireless mesh network-based video surveillance systems put together by companies such as Firetide Inc. in Los Gatos, Calif. are being deployed very successfully for public safety projects.

One such mesh installation has helped reduce criminal activity at a public housing project in Rockford, Illinois, according to Firetide.

The mesh network operated by the Rockford Housing Authority connects outdoor video surveillance cameras wirelessly to a central location for live monitoring and recording of the video feeds.

“Immediately after the cameras were installed, crime and loitering diminished immensely, and our residents and employees are feeling safer,” said Lewis Jordan, executive director of the Rockford Housing Authority in a statement.

The Rockford mesh network includes 16 outdoor enclosures with mesh nodes and IP video cameras, as well as five indoor mesh nodes for video monitoring and for relaying mesh network traffic.

Four police cars are also equipped with mobile Firetide mesh nodes so police officers can view live video from their cars while on patrol.

The clamour for wireless networks will intensify with the proliferation of location-based services and devices with embedded GPS capabilities, the IDC analyst said.

He said organizations such as the Global Marketing Association are bringing vendors, service providers and application developers together with the idea of pushing marketing and ads via GPS-enabled wireless services to handheld devices.

Services operating on the wireless mesh, Surtees said, are highly personalized. “They know who you are, where you are, and can target relevant stuff to you.”

Going places with GPS

And this isn’t all gee-wiz, or years down the road.

Surtees cited the example of The Transit Television Network (TTN), a passenger entertainment and information system implemented by U.S. cities such as Orlando, Fla. Advertising and programming is transmitted automatically to public transit over vehicles over the Internet via a wireless network.

The system includes GPS tracking technology that allows the county’s transit system to know where each bus is at all times, as well as offer “next stop” announcements.

This is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act that mandates audio and visual passenger notification of upcoming stops.

According to Surtees, the GPS system is also used to broadcast location-based advertising that’s specific to the route the vehicle is currently moving along.

The kicker, he said, is that healthy dose of targeted advertising pays for the systems.

Not only do the municipalities get the system free of cost, they also receive a percentage of the advertising revenue paid to the owners of TTN.

According to Surtees, we’re witnessing the “embedded GPS” phenomenon, not just in wireless, but in wireline devices as well.

Over the next few years, he said, location-based services will be one of the biggest drivers of wireless revenue and wireless data use – and used in a broad range of applications, from GIS-based health system mapping to managing traffic congestion tolls, tickets and parking.

Wireless wonders

We’re on the threshold of some incredible developments in the wireless world – in Canada and globally, Surtees said.

This year, he said, it’s very likely Canadian wireless subscribers will exceed wireline for the first time – probably by the third quarter.

For the first time in Canada, he said, wireless is the single-largest segment in the telecom services pie.

“The Canadian telecom space was a $36 billion a year business last in 2006. One third of that ($12 billion) came from wireless.”

The bulk of the growth is coming from the wireless market, Surtees observed. “Wireless is increasingly the place to be – globally and in Canada.”

These observations are very much in line with the conclusions of a report titled Mobile Content and Services Industry Profile published by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATAAlliance).

According to the report published this month, “2007 will be the year when Canada’s mobile content and services industry takes off.”

“Canada has long been lagging in developing and commercializing content and applications for cellular phones,” noted report author Jean-Guy Rens. “But this time is over. All stakeholders involved have entered the international race to create new services for nomadic users.”

Diversity – the name of the game

While municipal city networks will continue to proliferate, and support an incredible range of applications, Surtees sounded a note of caution.

He noted that wireless sector in Canada isn’t a homogenous market, and should not be treated as such. Wireless services and models adopted by one municipality may be completely unsuitable for another.

For instance, he said, the city of Fredericton, N.B. is pursuing one model with Fred-eZone (its free, community-wide WiFi network for residents, visitors and businesses) and the city of Toronto a very different one.

In Toronto, he said, we have some wireless initiatives driven by the province’s priorities – such as smart meters. “The driver [for this ini

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