The Wireless Lamp Post

By Gerry Blackwell

April 22, 2004

A company that plans to create a large scale wireless network across the UK is taking previously failed business models and hopes to squeeze out a successful deployment and future.

There's an old English music hall song we thought of recently on reading about UK-based LastMile Communications' plan for unwiring the nation's roadways. The song is about a fellow "leaning on the lamp post at the corner of your street, in case a certain little lady comes by. O me! O my!" O my, indeed.

In LastMile's brave new world, young swains probably won't have to lean on the lamp post anymore. The post itself will know if the little lady comes by and will send a wireless message to your PDA -- with maybe a video clip. LastMile is proposing to deploy a mesh network of 150,000 low-power, intelligent pico cells. It will do this by putting radios, antennas, flash memory and processors inside lamp posts and other roadside poles across the United Kingdom.

What immediately jumps out at you is the kind of data throughput LastMile is claiming for its technology: 40 to 400 Mbps.

The company will use unlicensed 63 GHz radio spectrum -- which is set aside in the UK, as in the U.S., for telematics applications - and it will place base stations along roads and streets about every 500 meters.

"Anybody working in RF knows that if you're using 63 GHz over such a short range, even with low power, the data rates are actually beyond even what we're claiming," says LastMile CEO Antony Abell.

The LastMile plan clearly has implications for Wi-Fi, especially the hotspot market -- but it may not be the Wi-Fi killer it at first appears. There are a few hurdles to get over still.

LastMile has already put in four years on this project. It began trials of the technology earlier this year. It will complete much more extensive tests before the end of the year.

"Assuming all things go swimmingly well, we see ourselves deploying in 2005," says Abell.

As long as it doesn't run into problems with production of the lamp post units, LastMile believes it will be possible to deploy all 150,000 base stations within a very short period -- as little as 18 months.

The hardware is relatively easy to install, Abell points out. Individual base stations don't require backhaul because they communicate with each other over the air via mesh networking. Backbone connections can come into the mesh anywhere.

The base stations don't even absolutely require wired power connections. They can run on solar power. This may seem laughable given the British climate, famous for rain not sun, but Abell isn't joking.

The 150,000 lamp posts will be enough to cover all major roads and urban thoroughfares in Britain. He estimates the network will reach 80 percent of the population, including in residences and businesses. The vast majority of Britons live within 250 meters of a roadway, he points out.

The investment required? The lamp post base stations will cost less than $375 each. Total to deploy the network: less than $375 million.

Not that LastMile, or any one player, will spend anything like that sum. LastMile hopes to receive a good chunk of that as revenue.

The company is not a service provider, Abell is quick to point out, it's a technology developer. LastMile plans to sell its "data posts" to service providers such as cellular carriers -- along with access rights to the poles, which it expects to secure from government agencies in return for a kick-back of free bandwidth.

The idea is that the service providers -- franchisees in a sense -- will deploy the technology in designated territories where they manage the infrastructure. However, universal, transparent roaming will be built into the network from the get-go.

The bandwidth the network provides will support a host of applications. They include OnStar-style roadside assistance, transport industry telematics and tracking, and police and homeland security -- which could include mounting video cams at the base stations, or even biological warfare sensors.

Most important from an economic perspective, the network will provide commercial information services for consumers.

"Providing a pure telematics service is not a great market," Abell says. "There's lots of interest from the transport industry, government and police, but they can't generate enough revenue to make it commercially viable to provide the coverage and bandwidth needed."

This is where LastMile's plan, and its patented technologies, come in to play. The network infrastructure will be paid for in part by local advertisers who supply content to be pushed out to consumer wireless devices -- phones and PDAs mostly, but "anything with a screen."

Subscribers will use LastMile's MagicBook client software to set up a profile telling the system what kind of information they want. Most mobile users, Abell says, will want the same basic information about nearby restaurants, hotels, cinemas, maps, directions, etc.

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