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 How to Differentiate T1 vs DSL for Wi-Fi Hot Spots

Written by: Fleishman/Sullivan - Mar 22, 2018

The back-end bandwidth for a hot spot may become as important as its very existence. There's a very good reason why Starbucks decided to implement dedicated T1 circuits in order to bring bandwidth to their US locations. Their competitors and others in the industry were bewildered: why spend several hundred to several thousand dollars a month per location to bring in a T1 when comparable DSL service might only be a few hundred at most?

The answer is, of course, quality of service. No matter who provides the DSL ó a regional telco, IXC, or a local phone company ó itís not their top priority. Circuits go up and down. The service at times is pumped into overloaded ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) circuits and then shot thousands of miles before emerging at a network operation center or NOC. (Smarter ISPs manage this better, placing points of presence or POPs closer to major DSL customer bases.)

And who cares if the DSL goes down? Itís usually an 8 to 5 proposition, weekdays, holidays excluded. You lose your circuit on Friday at noon, and if youíre lucky enough to reach someone who can troubleshoot it and get a trouble ticket issued, you might get it solved by the end of the day ó but as likely as not, no.

I speak from experience on both sides: Iíve had almost 100 percent reliable (knock photo-wood-grain finish) DSL in several locations, but Iíve also had the Friday-afternoon experience.

Contrast this with T1: a T1 line is a point-to-point dedicated (not shared) connection. That is, service originates at one location coming out of a CSU/DSU which converts a routerís output into T1 frames. Four wires (and sometimes two, using PairGain) snake from one location to a central office where the circuit is connected to another circuit and back into another office, CSU/DSU, and router. Because the quality of service (QoS) is maintained throughout, and because T1 is priced as a business service that may actually cover a telcoís cost of operations, the choke points can be serviced right away.

When I had a T1 line back in 1994-1996 running an early Web development business, even in those heady early days my service calls were escalated. I paid the phone company $250/month for what I now pay them, over DSL, about $20 to $30 per month.

The context of T1s and QoS are equally important to public Wi-Fi hot spots. Starbucks demanded a robust business network over which to run their store-to-HQ ecommerce network, training systems, and incidentally to allow their carrier to provide wireless-to-Internet service. City municipalities also prefer a high quality of service when deploying "free" hot spots in libraries, parks, etc., as it affects their reputation within the community.

For most other residential or very small business locales, DSL could suffice, but the ups and downs of managing multiple DSL circuits, or relying on your hot spot customers (if youíre deploying the service or reselling it), could swamp the uninitiated who base DSL performance on their own experience.

Other options are available, such as frame relay, an interesting technology in which you bring varying speed lines to facilities scattered around a number of central offices back to a central frame cloud. A circuit can be stuck in the middle of that cloud, essentially, pumping the frame traffic off to the Internet. The frame network can be cheaper to deploy because you donít need to bring Internet service to every location, just to the frame cloud itself. You also can offer a higher level of performance, because frame is a business service, and a higher pool of bandwidth.

Another option is Cable broadband internet, however cable tends to be more available in metro residential areas and somewhat less in commercial centers. After all, it was only a few years ago that cable was used mainly for watching television, which is rarely needed in a commercial building- therefore was not as built out. Unlike T1 which is available in 99% of areas with a land line telephone connection, even in the most rural parts of the country. Also cable is highly susceptible to degradation of throughput due to bandwidth sharing/oversubscription. Based on my own personal experience, I have noticed that cable speeds can fluctuate quite noticeably all day and night. I assume this is a result of other users in the area coming on and offline, changing the aggregate bandwith level.

Overseas, some providers already seem to be using bandwidth as a selling point, like NTT in Japan promoting the notion that the backhaul from their Wi-Fi hot spots will be multimegabits per second, rather than a more typical T1 speed (1.5 Mbps) or much slower (DSL speeds of 128 to 768 Kbps).

As conference centers start to roll wireless networking into their array of services to trade shows, theyíll face more and more resistance from their $2,000 charges for a few days of Ethernet access at T1 speeds. A colleague recently asked me privately about how trade shows might respond to these enormous facilities charges while attendees at the show were spending $10 per day for full Internet access.

My response was that QoS and packet shaping (ratcheting bandwidth based on type of service, and even specific users) could allow conference centers to charge reasonable amounts for service (nothing like the ridiculous margins of today, I would expect).

The conference center wireless network can be segregated so that trade show booths and speaker media have guarantees for available bandwidth to aid in streaming, demonstrations, and simply using corporate VPNs. Average attendees might be subject to bandwidth throttling, lower priority of their packets, or other limits to further distinguish service.

In the majority of hot spots, 512 Kbps service will continue to be the average rule of the day, and most hot spot networks donít have the Starbucks burden weighing on their backs. But as bandwidth use increases across many kinds of applications, hot spots will increasingly need to plan for bandwidth front and center, rather than as a last detail in deployment.