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Summary:

The San Francisco WiFi project might be dragging its feet, but more major cities are considering city-wide WiFi. Some ask why build these large WiFi networks when there’s mobile WiMAX coming? Two answers: WiFi equipment is cheap and available now. Colorado has plans for a 220-square-mile […]

The San Francisco WiFi project might be dragging its feet, but more major cities are considering city-wide WiFi. Some ask why build these large WiFi networks when there’s mobile WiMAX coming? Two answers: WiFi equipment is cheap and available now.

Colorado has plans for a 220-square-mile WiFi network that will span 10 cities and more than 600,000 people. The ‘Colorado Wireless Communities’ project plans to release an RFP by November 1st. Philadelphia is moving along and released a map of its 15-mile WiFi test area. Chicago released its RFP earlier this week, and Washington state will get a pretty big network in Pierce County built by Century Tel.

Tropos CEO Ron Sege said to me last year that there is a need for more muni WiFi network operators, i.e. more companies to compete with Earthlink. He said then that VCs are looking at options in that space. Since then companies like MetroFi, Metro Connect, CenturyTel and even Google have started deployments. That’s not to mention interest from the carriers and cable companies. What do you think, do cities looking at muni WiFi need more operator options?

Update: The planned network in Washington state is in Pierce County, which is reported to have 1,500 square miles – didn’t mean to imply entire state.

By Katie Fehrenbacher

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  1. WiFi will attract techies to live in cities that have WiFi capability.

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  2. “Two answers: WiFi equipment is cheap and available now.”

    Three answer: mobile WiMax requires licensed spectrum, which is both expensive and unavailable.

    Washington state’s new huge network? Pierce County, a sizeable fraction of Washington state, but still just a county.

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  3. The excitement will die down when the results of these deployments become mainstream. Muni Wi-Fi is not going to work in major cities as currently planned by companies like Earthlink. Smaller cities are much easier.

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  4. In addition to Pierce County, the state is going to WiFi the ferry routes. There are limited trials going on now on some of the routes, but it will expand to more routes as it is transitioned to a pay system (the current trial is free).

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  5. Well you’re certainly correct that muni WiFi is here but I’m not so sure that it’s as cheap as people think. The muni-WiFi deployments seem to be using about 10 access points (APs) per square km (based on Washington and Toronto). That’s an average radius of about 300m apiece. That kind of distance is pushing the WiFi link budget to the extreme given that your average WiFi user device is pretty power limited. Now consider a mobility WiMAX cell. You’re talking a 3 km radius with a capacity of about 60 Mbps in 20 MHz of licensed spectrum (that’s not a typo, 75 Mbps at 75 miles has always been a fantasy). That’s 10 times the radius or 100 times the area. So you need 100 WiFi APs to cover the same area as a single WiMAX basestation. And a fair number of those APs will need backhaul (10%??) or your latency will suck (even with mesh, you can only have so many hops).

    So the question is, will a WiMAX BS be 100x the cost of a mesh WiFi AP? My info is that a mesh AP is a few grand, let’s say $2000. I’m pretty certain that a mobility WiMAX BS will be much less than $200K. Then there’s the question of spectrum. True, licensed spectrum costs big $$$ (T-mobile just dropped almost $5 billion on 20 MHz nationwide). But unlicensed has its own issues…namely that anyone can merrily transmit. As WiFi becomes even more ubiquitous, muni WiFi networks are going to grind to a halt (ever been in a conference room with 100 people on laptops hanging off a couple of APs?)

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  6. Hmmm, asides from debating the price and effectiveness of hardware…

    Toronto notes: there’s an organisation of good-hearted fellows called wireless toronto (http://wirelesstoronto.ca/) here that has a mission to bring no-fee access to public spaces in the city – but are not getting any support from the municipality, who is a shareholder in a new commercial urban wi-fi provider called Toronto Hydro Telecom (http://www.thtelecom.ca/).

    When will municipalities start valuing free wifi and promoting both its accesibility and use? Have any of you heard of cases similar or otherwise to this?

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  7. I agree with Matt Liotta for the following reasons: The entire Muni Wireless Market, that is primarily based on overhyped low cost and the underpowered and fixed systems (Single or even dual Radio AP/Nodes)that cannot be upgraded or expanded as deployed, will fail as an economical Broadband Distribution network. This will eventually cause a serious credibility problem for the rest of the Service Providers industry who have done their research and have deployed or plan to deploy a viable Multi radio (3-6 AP/Nodes)Mesh systems that:
    Can be upgraded or expanded as deployed by:
    1.adding additional radios in the deployed Node, instead of adding an additonal node to deal with congestion, and or new requirements, like 4.9GHz Public Safety spectrum or new WiMAX Backhaul radios,
    2.replacing existing radios with new technology like 802.11n Access radios replacing existing 802.11g or the new WiMAX Mobile systems.

    Where Metro Mesh Net will be successful is in smaller markets where congestion is not going to be an issue and single or dual radio nets will suffice, as well in the major markets where Providers have selected either the Strix or the BelAir Mesh products and deployed 3-4 Radio Mesh solutions that can handle todays and near term demands on these networks.
    This is no longer the “just connect me to my email market” we are dealing with here folks. Our subscribers will be deploying TV & Movies/YouTube/iTunes and playing On Line Multi Player (P2P) games on these new Portable Nets-not to mention the impact VoiceIP calls will have. I am concerned that what we see being deployed in SF/Philly and other planned major metro markets will not be able to deal with these demands (economically) and will need a major infusion of cash (usually from Muni) and network re-designs.
    Lets not even talk about all the new Motorola Canopy gateways these big cities will need to add to maintain the Mbps levels on the access piece of the Mesh.
    Wireless Mesh combined with WiMAX Fixed (BAckhaul)and emerging 802.11n and WiMAX mobile (Access) will dominate the Metro Broadband Portable space with the CellCo folks re-focusing their efforts (technologies and spectrum) to maintain and enhance their Voice services. Narrowband Data will be delivered in rural areas where Mesh does not play.

    Jacomo

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  8. Jacomo — do you work for Strix or Bel-Air? Important to disclose these things…

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