Coast to coast wireless

It was the best of wireless. It was also the worst of wireless. Bear with me...

A new IEEE 802.22 standard for two-way wireless transmission will have a range of 90 kilometres and speeds up to 22 megabits per second (Mbps), using UHF frequencies long abandoned by the television industry.

By area, a single tower could cover a circle of roughly 25,434 square kilometres.  That means we could theoretically cover every square inch of Canada with around 392 towers - although presumably we'd need a few dozen towers in heavily populated urban areas like Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver to handle the volume of traffic.

The benefits would be substantial - providing the CRTC doesn't give the frequencies away to the same companies that already control our telecommunications industry and are more interested in securing their monopolies on cable and Internet than building the backbone of a national wireless network.

With a national wireless network we wouldn't need cell phones, for example, because we could call, video conference, text, etc. through the web. Every car could be hooked up to the web for streaming music, maps, communications, emergency assistance, and so on. Broadband could be delivered to remote communities without wires or long relays of microwave towers. Boats operating in coastal areas would be able to use the network, enhancing safety.

The third world, already so far behind in telecommunications infrastructure it's ridiculous, would be able to offer wireless for relatively low cost.

That said, wireless will never replace wires. The 22Mbps cited above is the theoretical maximum transmission rate for 802.22, although it will likely be less in practice. That's actually pretty limited in these days of gigabit fibre optic lines, which have a theoretical maximum capacity of 100 gigabits per second per fibre (with dozens or hundreds of fibres bundled into a single fibre optic cable).

It's also slower than WiMax Mobile standard (1Gbps, though at much shorter ranges than 802.22) and 4G (up to 100Mbps with even shorter ranges than WiMax). The long range and low setup costs are the real selling point for the new standard, and the ability to blanket an entire country with no dead zones or interruptions in the network - not even in the air, if you're flying from place to place.

The irony of these new wireless innovations (the "worst of wireless" that I mentioned in my intro) is that the World Health Organization has recently listed wireless electromagnetic waves as a potential carcinogen, based on hundreds of studies collected from around the world - and in particular the microwave radio frequencies used by cell phones and local wireless networks that we're surrounded by at all times.

And that's just the human health angle, as some are concerned that the concentration of signals may be contributing to the demise of bees, which play an important role in the cross-pollination of plant species including food crops.

Elizabeth May, the head of the Green Party of Canada and Canada's first Green MP as of a few months ago, has taken up the fight in Canada and recently questioned BC Hydro's installation of smart meters at homes and businesses that use wireless signals to communicate with headquarters. She also voiced concerns with the spread of wireless in schools, and the Green Party has called for an independent investigation to determine the safety of our exposure to various waves.

While she's being marginalized as a tinfoil hat-wearing alarmist, I suspect that there's something to all the research.

It's a bit of a Pandora's box we would be opening, and my suspicion is that most people don't really want to know what's inside because we're afraid of what it could mean for our daily lives. A federally funded, definitive study on the potential health risks of wireless signals and electromagnetic waves - if it proves a link to cancers and other health issues - would require action. At the very minimum it would mean printed warnings on cell phones and shutting down wireless signals in public spaces like schools, libraries and hospitals. The ban could even extend to work places through worker safety initiatives. In other words, it would be a disaster.

Homeowners have a few options, none of them popular. We can change building codes to mandate Ethernet wiring in the walls and jacks in every room of new homes. Old homes could be retrofitted with Ethernet at the owners' expense. People can also pay BC Hydro extra to install smart meters in low risk areas.

But we would still be more or less surrounded by microwaves at all times, just in lower concentrations. People who claim to have electromagnetic sensitivities (and medical opinion is still out on whether this is a real phenomena) generally have to locate to remote areas like deserts to be comfortable.

I'm not saying a federal study on wireless is a bad idea, just an unpopular one.



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