Flow introduces public WiFi

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Above: Using public WiFi. Image by Jkstock/Depositphotos.

BitDepth#1206 for July 18, 2019

Today, in a series of meetings with the media, newly appointed Flow Country Manager Kurleigh Prescod will introduce its new community WiFi product.

Except that in a fit of enthusiasm, the company sent an email to its customers five days ago announcing the project.

According to the Flow media invite, the service will offer “Blanket WiFi access in communities, malls [and] selected areas will be made possible by turning on the SSID portal in Flow modems.”

I sent a series of questions to the company about the project, but the company declined to answer them in favour of revealing the information formally today.

Which is weird, but, *shrug.*

It isn’t even accurate to call it a product, because you can’t buy it. It’s part of the feature set of Flow broadband customers.

If you’re a Flow customer, you need to ensure that you have a Flow ID (which also opens the web portal for your account with the company).

That allows you to connect to a new Flow WiFi access point. You can then log in with your ID and password for your account.

At least, that’s how the website explains it.

I wasn’t able to connect to anything after signing up, because the service wasn’t up, and I searched everywhere I went.

So there’s no clear idea yet how this works in the field, but I can hazard some guesses based on how it works.

To provide this service without bolting new hardware onto T&TEC’s already overburdened poles, Flow will be using the routers they have already installed to broadcast an additional public signal.

It’s a technology that’s been in use in the US and Europe for the last five years.

Comcast did the first major public network in the US in 2014 and all XFinity customers can access XFinity WiFi with their mobile devices.

To do it, the cable provider opens an additional portal on the customer’s modem that’s separate from the connection they’re paying for and uses that transmission capability to create a public WiFi mesh.

To do it, the cable provider opens an additional portal on the customer’s modem that’s separate from the connection they’re paying for and uses that transmission capability to create a public WiFi mesh.

That network architecture caused some minor privacy concerns in the US, and Comcast responded by allowing customers to opt out of having their router participate in the service.

Comcast and other European providers have also been at pains to note that the service does not degrade customer access nor does it put their home or office networks at risk.

The router will probably use the 2.4 GHZ transmission frequency for range (300 feet in a favourable environment), but that cuts down on maximum speeds in favour of range, so Flow is targeting a 10MB download and 3MB upload speed for the service.

Coverage is going to track closely with the presence of installed Flow routers, but the company’s coverage map is no help with that, because it shows where the service is available for purchase, not where it is actually present.

Customers will get a limit of 200MB worth of data per day, which is a data allotment that aligns with a normal mobile data plan of around 4GB per month used five days a week.

Does this mean that you can cancel your mobile data plan and just use Flow WiFi?

That’s probably going to depend on where you access the Internet most and how many Flow modems are broadcasting there. The service is also going to disappear where there is minimal housing, so signal will be spotty at best on north-south runs.

But if you’re a Flow customer, there seems no good reason not to sign up for it, because free data is always a good thing.

July 18, 2019Updated after today’s conversation with Flow’s leadership. 

Flow has 100,000 modems currently active and half of them are currently online.  The service is residential only. Modems used by businesses are not being used to create the WiFi mesh. 

Older modems, totalling 20 percent of the company’s installed base, cannot be used for Flow WiFi at all.  The service has been in testing since early June and took place in Mayaro and other remote locations. 

“There were bugs,” admitted Kurleigh Prescod, newly appointed country manager for Flow.  “We wanted to deal with the problems of a couple dozen people, not 40,000 people calling in to say their Internet isn’t working.” 

“There is a tight correlation between our coverage map and the availability of the service,” Prescod said.  Flow customers who do not wish their modems to be used as part of the public WiFi mesh can call the company’s customer service and asked to be removed as an access point. A web form is in the planning stages to facilitate such demurrals. 

“The newer modems offer better performance,” he said, “and we have services coming that make use of their capabilities.” Flow will soon introduce branded WiFi range extenders for these modems to their hardware lineup. 

Asked about the 200MB daily cap, Prescod acknowledged that it was shaped by current mobile data plans, but said,” We are not going after the mobile market, we are providing economic ease to customers who wants to access data.” 

The Flow WiFi mesh won’t work well in a moving vehicle and is dependent on the proximity and strength of nearby residential modems. Where signal strength is generally high, the hand-off between access points can be seamless. When it isn’t, users can expect variable service.