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Sustainable Cities Should Look to Wireless Broadband Rather than Fiber

| Thursday October 28th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Ever rush to catch the train or bus only to find yourself waiting for it to arrive?  With city-wide government-encouraged wireless broadband, you may never face this frustration again. A smart phone app can provide a constantly-updated arrival time of your train or bus.  Such an app would be a sustainability boon since it would lessen one of public transit’s greatest inhibitors—long travel times due in part to waiting for buses or trains to arrive.

However, this sustainable innovation and many others that will use wireless sensors in vehicles, buildings, street lights, stop lights, parking meters, etc. cannot be implemented without city-wide wireless internet (e.g., WiFi, WiMax, or LTE).  At least 32 U.S. cities have already implemented such systems.  However, most others are covered by privately-owned cellular networks whose owners have little incentive to hand over wireless spectrum to municipalities, even for sustainable uses.  Several municipalities have installed extensive fiber optics in place of wireless.  But for those interested in the next generation of sustainable land use, city-wide wireless that is at least partially owned by a municipality is the key enabler.

Some of the transformative ideas that require broad wireless Internet access include:

  • Real-time public-transit schedules, traffic predictions, and route calculations accessible via smart phone and based on wirelessly-transmitted vehicle positions (reducing public transit travel times and traffic);
  • Real-time parking space availability accessible via smart phone and based on wirelessly-transmitted parking meter usage (reducing gas/time spent searching for parking spaces);
  • Automatic maintenance notifications sent wirelessly from city infrastructure, such as malfunctioning stoplights or burned out street lights (decreasing municipal inspector time and fuel expenditures);
  • Traffic signals that adjust for real-time traffic conditions and begin controlling traffic flow long before emergency vehicles attempt to cross busy intersections;
  • Electric, gas, and water meters providing real-time usage data to utilities enabling optimized power distribution and plant construction; and
  • Office lights that turn off when employees leave the building and home water heaters that shut down when the family leaves for work and school.

Fiber will never enable these ideas.  Only city-wide wireless Internet can bring these to life.

Some will argue that wireless Internet is inherently bandwidth-limited and unreliable, and therefore municipal funds would be better spent on high-speed fiber optic networks.  While fiber is more reliable and its incredible speeds (1 gigabyte per second) will be transformative (e.g., enabling remote telecommuting centers), the resulting benefits are more likely be increased corporate profits and HD movie downloads, rather than decreased CO2 emissions other sustainability-related contributions.  Both fiber and wireless will be transformative, but based on the numbers and types of innovations already looking to take advantage of city-wide wireless broadband, sustainability-minded city planners should encourage municipal wireless broadband before turning to fiber.

Steve Gruber is in his final term at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, and is a registered Patent Agent. He is also a mountaineer, soccer player, and former Division I varsity golf team captain.


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  • Mark Erickson

    It’s the combination of the two that will make all you speak of happen. As you said, there isn’t enough bandwidth with wireless (the reliability will improve) and fiber isn’t mobile. But fiber networks make wonderful access points for wireless routers. One complements the other.

  • http://www.muninetworks.org Christopher Mitchell

    Indeed, as Mark suggests – what is better: shoes or hats?

    Wireless is better for mobile, and fiber much better for speed (capability much much faster than the 1GBps suggested), reliability, and even long term costs considering the relatively short life of radio access points and opex.

    The idea that fiber will not reduce greenhouse gases is specious. Wireless is not sufficient to stop me from driving across the state to get to a good hospital, nor to allow me to work from home.

    They are good for different purposes, but interestingly, a fiber foundation enables better wireless coverage whereas starting with a wireless foundation does nothing but slow down fiber.