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Weekly Column

The Limits of SpongeBob SquarePants: One Canadian's Wireless Neighborhood Network Could Someday Serve Us All

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Like many of us, Andrew Greig put a WiFi access point in his house so he could share his broadband Internet connection. But like hardly any of us, Andrew uses his WiFi network for Internet, television, and telephone. He cancelled his telephone line and cable TV service. Then his neighbors dropped-by, saw what Andrew had done, and they cancelled their telephone and cable TV services, too, many of them without having a wired broadband connection of their own. They get their service from Andrew, who added an inline amplifier and put a better antenna in his attic. Now most of Andrew's neighborhood is watching digital TV with full PVR capability, making unmetered VoIP telephone calls, and downloading data at prodigious rates thanks to shared bandwidth. Is this the future of home communications and entertainment? It could be, five years from now, if Andrew Greig has anything to say about it.

The advantage Andrew Greig has over most of the rest of us is that he works for Starnix, an international Open Source software and services consultancy in Toronto, Canada. Starnix, which deals with huge corporate clients, has the brain power to get running what I described above. And it goes much further than that simple introduction.

Somewhere in Andrew's house is a hefty Linux server running many applications, including an Asterisk Open Source VoIP software PBX. There is no desktop PC in Andrew's house. Instead, he runs a Linux thin client on a Sharp Zaurus SL-6000 Linux PDA. Sitting in its cradle on Andrew's desk at home, the Zaurus (running a special copy of Debian Linux, NOT as shipped by Sharp) connects to a full-size keyboard and VGA display, and runs applications on the server. Another cradle, monitor and keyboard are at Andrew's office, where he also doesn't have a PC. Walking around in his house, the Zaurus (equipped with a tri-mode communications card) is a WiFi VoIP phone running through the Asterisk PBX and connecting to the Vonage VoIP network. Walking out of his house, the Zaurus automatically converts to the local mobile phone carrier, though with a data connection that still runs back through Vonage. At Starbucks, it's a Wifi Vonage phone. At Andrew's office, it is a WiFi extension to the office Asterisk PBX AND to Andrew's home PBX. That's one PDA doing the job of two desktop PCs, a notebook PC, and three telephones.

Yeah, but what about that wireless TV? How does that work? Andrew's server runs Myth TV, an Open Source digital video recorder application, storing on disk in MPEG-4 format (1.5-2 megabits-per-second) more than 30,000 TV episodes, movies and MP3 music files. "As each new user comes online, I add another TV card to the system so they can watch live TV," says Andrew, "but since there are only so many episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, nearly everything that isn't news or sports is typically served from disk with full ability to jump forward or back at will. We've reached the point now where the PVR has so much in storage already that it is set to simply record anything that isn't already on disk."

Think about it. These folks up in Canada can not only watch everything we can watch on TV, on a whim they can watch every episode of the original Star Trek in the order they were broadcast ALL ON ONE WEEKEND. I wouldn't do that, true, but I also CAN'T do that.

At this point, intellectual property lawyers are supposed to start reaching for their telephones to call Canada, but it won't do any good because all this content is perfectly legal and here's how. With the exception of local channels, which come from an antenna, all of Andrew's video content comes from a C-band (big dish) satellite receiver (receivers, actually), and is fully paid for. "I buy the channels just like a cable system does or a motel that wants to offer HBO, from the National Programming Service," says Andrew. "And as a result I pay wholesale prices. People don't realize how much of a markup there in is the cable business. The Discovery Networks, for example, cost me $0.26 per customer per month. The IP laws in both the U.S. and Canada say that if I have legal access to this content I can store and use it. And the over-the-air channels, of course, are free."

Remember how in the go-go Internet days of three to four years ago, we used to talk about "disintermediation?" That was using technology to remove middle men from transactions. Well, what Andrew Greig is doing is dis-intermediating both the telephone and TV cable companies. And he'd like to dis-intermediate the Internet Service Providers, too.

Starnix is getting ready to take its technology on the road, so to speak, selling and licensing it to all comers. One plan is to create a wireless ISP offering these services, growing it around what Andrew calls "wireless sweet spots." The difference between a "hotspot" and a "sweet spot" is that a sweet spot is both hot AND cheap. "We were installing a wireless network in a large hospital and showed them that there were economies of scale to be gained from lighting four of the fiber pairs coming-in from their ISP, rather than two. Their costs go down and we benefit from that lower pricing and pick up the additional bandwidth for wireless service outside the hospital." Since Starnix installs wireless networks all over (other Starnix sites include the Time-Warner intergalactic HQ in New York), this is a provisioning model that could be used over and over.

Unlike most other wireless networks, Starnix uses 802.11a, which matches the 54 megabits-per-second speed of 802.11g, but does so in the five GHz band where there is less interference. Even more important, while 802.11g (and -b) have a maximum of only three non-conflicting channels, 802.11a in North America supports 24 non-conflicting channels for at least eight times the total bandwidth.

This would all be just an interesting and very nerdly proof of concept except that Starnix has a global reputation (one of their wireless network customers is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- Canada's more colorful version of the FBI), and the Canadian Government is putting some money into helping establish the wireless ISP.

But there is an industrial or commercial side to this, too. Right now, OEMs are lining-up to bring this Starnix model of hardware, software, and connectivity to the workplace. "It's the six percent solution," says Greig. "Businesses don't want to admit this, but they spend up to 12 percent of gross revenues on IT including communications. By going to Open Source and thin clients and VoIP we could cover all their needs for half that cost -- six percent. No separate hardware, software, bandwidth, or support costs, just a flat six percent. We have large partners right now who are getting ready to take this proposition to market."

What's happening in Andrew Greig's neighborhood is going to happen in three to five years in many neighborhoods. The look will be slightly different with technologies like WiMax wireless networking playing a role. Moore's Law, too, is going to have a significant impact on bringing down the cost of implementing this dream. That Starnix thin client needed to drive your TV costs $250 in volume today but three years from now it will cost $70. Or maybe the thin client will be in the TV, itself. With Linux proliferating in consumer devices that's almost a sure thing since even if Sony doesn't do it some firmware hacker will.

That's the big lesson here, not that some guys up in Canada can run their own Star Trek marathon, but that Open Source software is leading to digital devices being used in large volumes in ways their designers never envisioned. This takes control of the network out of the hands of the providers and into the hands of the users. And the outcome doesn't have to be some socialistic information economy. On the contrary, it means that whole new business models will appear to take advantage of the fact that all types of communications and all types of content will be able to reach all parts of the market with almost no friction. Following that line of thought, even I might find a way to make a living.

Maybe.

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