Optical/IP Networks

Sacramento to Set Up Muni WiFi

Sacramento, Calif., is the next city lining up to install a border-to-border WiFi mesh network, offering local residents and businesses a cable- and copper-free broadband data option. (See UN: Wireless Mesh Surges.)

The city and its contractor, the wireless ISP MobilePro Corp. , have just completed a pilot project and are expected to begin building the network soon. A ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for April 4.

Strix Systems Inc. will provide the wireless mesh access points. MobilePro’s marketing director, Karrie Rockwell, says the project will require between 700 and 1,000 of the devices placed on city-owned light poles and buildings throughout Sacramento.

Mobile Pro will own and maintain the network, and will act as a wholesaler for other voice, video, and data providers that wish to run their services over the network, Rockwell says. Rockwell says her company wants to achieve a 10 percent penetration rate in Sacramento’s broadband market.

Other broadband providers in the area include Covad Communications Inc. , Speakeasy Inc. , AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), SureWest Communications (Nasdaq: SURW), and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK).

The city will provide local rights-of-way and, in return, will receive free wireless broadband service for use by city employees. For example, a Sacramento fireman on the way to a fire might use the service to download the blueprints of the burning building, says Strix’s VP of marketing, Nan Chen, who has never actually fought a fire. Other uses might include anything from city surveillance systems to intelligent parking meters, Chen says.

The network will provide 1.5 Mbit/s of bandwidth to individual users, and up to 20 Mbit/s for enterprises, Chen says. Strix’s gear can be upgraded to support WiMax by simply adding a network card, he adds.

When muni WiFi comes to town, the local incumbent broadband providers usually aren't very happy about the idea, and Sacramento is no exception. Wireless broadband works directly against the cable and telephone companies' duopoly on last-mile broadband access.

“Many battles have been fought and lost by the incumbents to keep networks like this from being built,” Chen says. “The incumbents may have some heartburn when they see how quickly these networks get up and running.” (See Marveling at the Munis.)

AT&T spokesperson Jordon Diamond says cities like Sacramento might be better off leaving it to the private sector to launch new broadband networks. Jordon emailed Light Reading a list of municipal broadband initiatives that have lost money or gone under.

“It’s not that we oppose it; we just think cities should be mindful of the risks and the costs,” Diamond says. “Their [cities] track record isn’t good in these things. We think that cities should be stimulating private investment in broadband and shouldn’t be pitting government against the private sector.”

SureWest spokesman Ron Rogers says his company doesn’t feel that the Mobile Pro network will be a direct competitor. “We offer 10 and 20 megs of Internet speeds, and we market it as part of a triple-play bundle,” Rogers says. “Also, since the project hasn’t even been approved, it’s a little early to say much about it.”

But the incumbents acknowledge that municipal wireless deployments are popping up everywhere. (See Municipal Broadband Networks.) Other notable municipal WiFi mesh projects include Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Corpus Christi, Texas, and many smaller ones are either being built or are in the planning stages. (See Google, EarthLink Team for SF WiFi and EarthLink Hooks Up Philly.)

“What we have done in our partnership with Mobile Pro is clearly part of a trend among cities to provide broadband for all,” Chen says.

Strix and MobilePro recently announced the extension of a similar network in Tempe, Ariz., to two adjacent cities. The network will soon cover 187 square miles and will likely be the largest contiguous wireless network in the U.S. Cox Communications Inc. is partnering in the project and will provide the fiber rings around the network footprint for carriage of the wireless traffic. (See MobilePro Deploys Strix and Strix's Tempe Mix.)

Sacramento originally released a request for proposal for the WiFi deployment last April. Strix’s Chen says MCI LLC , Nextel Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NXTL), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and AT&T (then SBC) all submitted bids, but SBC dropped out and city managers eventually chose MobilePro as the finalist.

MobilePro got the inside track in part because of the free wireless usage that would be granted to city personnel. The ISP says it will also sell temporary WiFi access to people visiting the city.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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