Choose a Network, Any Network

The news that Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) are collaborating on a piece of hardware for laptops that will automatically connect to HSDPA networks -- the so-called "3.5G" cellular technology that major service providers are rolling out -- adds to the complex blend of connectivity modes now available to mobile workers on the go.

Let's say you're sitting at a Starbucks in downtown Portland. First there's the in-house T-Mobile US Inc. hotspot (which you'll have to pay for, since you've chosen Starbucks). Then, soon if not now, there's a municipal mesh network that covers the business district. Then, if you've got a card or an embedded module, by next year there will be a high-speed data network, like EV-DO or HSDPA, offered by a carrier like Verizon Wireless or Cingular Wireless . Soon after that, there will be a mobile WiMax network supported by Sprint Nextel or by one of the many startups pursuing the 802.16e technology.

And if you go back to your hotel room you can always plug into the in-room Ethernet service for 10 bucks or so a day.

This increasingly dense overlay of networks is a good thing, of course, but it's giving rise to intense political debates and heated discussions in enterprise IT departments. The major carriers, who just last year were still trying to block muni WiFi projects in court, have moved on to focusing on their own wireless Internet hookups designed to blanket cities and towns. If you're a city official in a place like Denver, which hasn't launched its muni wireless initiative yet, you're probably feeling like a prized high-school football recruit right now, fielding calls from carriers and ISPs touting their services. Hell, citizens of Milpitas, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, have two private-vendor-supplied networks -- one from EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) and one from MetroFi Inc. -- to choose from.

As we've reported extensively on Unstrung, many of these municipal networks have run into unforeseen obstacles; but the emerging model of a city-sanctioned network built and operated by private vendors under a revenue-sharing deal is swiftly gaining traction in municipalities that have, wisely, waited out the initial gold rush. (See SF Net to Go Public?)

IT professionals, meanwhile, are eyeing the accumulation of citywide networks warily yet hopefully. Metropolitan-area networks promise to give enterprises a decent backup option to their own primary connections, or even, in some fortunate cases, a low-cost alternative to T1s or other commercial access services. They also, however, present interference and security problems. How will you handle employees connecting to outdoor mesh networks from their offices? How will dense network overlays affect in-building wireless LANs? Will true, ubiquitous, indoor wireless broadband become a reality in the near future?

None of these questions are answerable right now. But it's a good time to be thinking about them -- especially from your local coffee shop.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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