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New Muni Models

As ambitious projects for building city-wide WiFi networks move from the proposal stage to the build-out phase, some municipalities and providers are running into unforeseen obstacles, and others are developing new and creative ways to avoid or overcome those hurdles. (See Mesh Mess Sinks Sacramento Net.)

In San Jose, Calif. yesterday, the Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force announced that it has selected three finalists for the deployment of a high-speed wireless network that will tie together 40 communities from South San Francisco through Santa Cruz, covering the heart of Silicon Valley.

The finalists include Mountain View, Calif.-based MetroFi Inc. , VeriLAN Inc. of Portland, and the Silicon Valley Metro Connect Team (a consortium headed by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)).

Besides being one of most ambitious municipal WiFi projects in the country, the Silicon Valley network is being developed specifically to avoid some of the pitfalls that have beset other city-wide networks.

Boston, meanwhile, has chosen to eschew a commercial network altogether. The Wireless Task Force in that city said earlier this week that it will seek out a nonprofit corporation to raise some $20 million to build and operate a city-wide WiFi network over the next two years.

"We believe the nonprofit route may be the best way to bring low-cost service to every neighborhood while providing a platform for innovation unlike any in the nation," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in a statement. "By keeping the network open, we believe we can create a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, which will spur economic growth and job creation."

Societal Impacts Taking the opposite tack is Toronto, where Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc. is building a purely commercial, fee-based network for the city's downtown core. The first phase of the system, scheduled to be operational by June 30, has been delayed until after September 1 owing to a combination of factors including police concerns over identifying users who might engage in illegal or illicit activity during the initial six-month free trial period for access.

"We were glad they came to us," says THT president David Dobbins, "because we don't want downtown Toronto to become a haven for online child pornographers.

"It's actually a problem," he adds. "A lot of places are putting up these free WiFi networks, and I don’t think a lot of network operators are thinking about the real societal impact of it."

The network will use an authentication system using short text-messages, tied to users' cell phone numbers, during the free-trial period.

First, Lose the Politicians In Silicon Valley, the wireless task force is consciously avoiding some of the elements of plans for earlier WiFi projects in places like Philadelphia and San Francisco, according to Seth Fearey, the executive director of Smart Valley, an information-technology initiative formed out of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a civic organization established in 1993.

"First of all, we do not have politicians leading this project," says Fearey. "That simplifies a lot of things."

Second, the Silicon Valley network is not focused on bridging the digital divide by bringing free or low-cost Internet access to low-income residents -- a driving purpose, at least ostensibly, behind many muni WiFi projects. "It was more important to us to have a viable business plan, so that we can offer a tiered service that most people in the region can afford."

Similarly, Toronto Hydro Telecom will not be providing a free or discounted version of its service targeted specifically at underprivileged users.

"The biggest question I have when people ask about free service is: 'Who determines who's underprivileged?' " points out Dobbins. "I don't understand how you would do that -- ask for your tax return before we let you on the WiFi network?"

About the Outdoors THT plans to offer a fee-based service that will cost less than competing services such as DSL or cable modems.

In fact, the Silicon Valley network will differ from many other city WiFi projects by focusing on mobile workers more than residents at home. Fearey lists an array of different enterprise users, from realtors to construction workers to field service technicians, who will benefit from the service. For that reason, unlike the Toronto network, which aims to provide coverage 10 meters beyond the outer walls of buildings, the network will not attempt to penetrate homes and office buildings.

"We're about the outdoors," explains Fearey. "We're trying to go beyond laptops, email, and Web surfing to outdoor mobility applications, including machine-to-machine systems. We're looking to build a general-purpose, high-speed wireless data network that will include 4.9 [MHz] police radios, webcams, water meters, temperature sensors, and other applications as well as email, Web surfing and those kinds of uses."

The Silicon Valley network will offer five tiers of service, from basic Internet access to high-speed voice and video applications. Will this become the standard model for municipal WiFi networks? Stay tuned.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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