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Broadband services

SkyPilot Finds Muni Landing Strip

Call it the muni mesh trifecta.

SkyPilot Networks Inc. has released new network infrastructure that combines three separate frequency bands for use by municipal workers, businesses, and residents.

Today's introduction of the SkyExtender TriBand product will extend the reach of municipal mesh networks to enterprises, while giving police and fire departments unfettered high-speed connections over the licensed 4.9GHz frequency band for public safety applications.

The new system, says SkyPilot vice president of product management Brian Jenkins, integrates synchronous mesh backhaul over the 5.8GHz band with two access points: one for the 4.9GHz public safety network and one for public WiFi hotspots over 2.4 GHz.

"The mesh network is rapidly changing," notes Jenkins, "and cities' requirements are increasing. Once they get the networks built, then they realize what they can do with them and they start layering on additional functionality and capabilities, whether it's city building inspectors, mobile workers for local businesses, or all sorts of other ones that I'm not sure we've fathomed yet."

Founded in 2000 as a fixed-wireless vendor, SkyPilot entered the muni network last fall and has partnered with mesh operator MetroFi Inc. on a few notable municipal wins, including Santa Clara/Cupertino, Calif. Last week the company announced that Aurora, Ill., the second-largest city in that state, has chosen MetroFi to build and operate its citywide network using dual-band SkyPilot equipment.

To be launched with a downtown pilot program in early summer and largely built out by the end of this year, the Aurora network is seen as a driver of economic development for the city of 170,000.

"When Mayor [Tom] Weisner announced a budget of $15 million to build out the wireless and the fiber optic network, many people questioned that commitment," says Tony Hylton, the city's technology consultant. What they might not have grasped was that the city needed to do something to reverse an economic decline that began back in the 80s, he added. "If Aurora is not willing to invest in itself, why would anybody else do so?"

The city, Hylton says, looked at many different models for municipal networks before settling on the combination of MetroFi and SkyPilot. They included licensing an ISP to build and operate the system, as with the networks being planned by EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG); the city buying the equipment and building and operating the network itself; or hiring a systems integrator like Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) or IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) In the end, he says, both versatility and cost weighed in favor of the MetroFi/SkyPilot solution. (See Google & EarthLink Team Up.)

"The end result was that we found a very capable partner, one that is secure financially and has done networks in communities of the size and magnitude of Aurora."

The Aurora network will be advertising-supported. ("It's not pop-ups or spyware," Hylton emphasizes.) Businesses that want a free, 1-Mbit/s wireless connection will be able to connect at no cost; those that want to dispense with the ads will pay around $20 a month. Enterprise use of the city network may largely be for backup solutions and as a way for mobile workers in the city to access company networks; in any case, so says SkyPilot's Jenkins.

"There are something like 126,000 square miles of municipal networks going in today," Jenkins adds. "If mesh networking becomes this broader market, what are the implications for the enterprise? Once mobile workers have this kind of broadband connectivity in a wider variety of areas, beyond airports and hotels, I don't think the consequences are really well documented yet."

Multi-frequency solutions like SkyPilot's TriBand system will likely help make those consequences evident. In a report last month entitled "Myths and Realities of WiFi Mesh Networking," Yankee Group Research Inc. wireless technologies research fellow Roberta Wiggins listed SkyPilot at close to the bottom of mesh providers in terms of market penetration and name recognition. But, she wrote, the company's "multi-radio modular architecture … can take scalability and performance to the next level."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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