The Unwired City

By Gerry Blackwell

November 07, 2003

Aiirnet hopes to have the first city-wide hotzones be up and running before the end of the year.

Municipal hotzones that provide ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage throughout a community have been a gleam in the eye of this industry for a couple of years.

A few towns and cities have created multi-block hotzones in downtown cores and business parks. For example Whistler, a ski resort in Canada, plans to have ubiquitous coverage of one small village by early next year.

Now Aiirnet, an eight-month-old Los Angeles-based firm, appears poised to take the next step and announce the first significant city-wide hotzone in the U.S.

The city is actually a suburb of Los Angeles. Its council will meet November 24 to make a final decision on whether to go ahead with the project, which will see Aiirnet use municipally-owned antenna sites to operate a wireless Internet service provider (WISP) targeting consumers.

The firm already has a small pilot up and running using Wi-Fi mesh technology from Tropos Networks. The wireless service would ultimately provide coverage of 10 square miles.

If Aiirnet gets the green light, which it anticipates it will, it could be up and running with coverage in the first few neighborhoods in the city within two to three weeks, says chief technology officer John Griebling.

Aiirnet had been "running under everyone's radar -- on purpose," according to CEO Stan Hirschman. It flew into the open earlier this month, announcing the community hotzone strategy and a hotspot-in-a-box product at the CTIA show in Las Vegas.

"A lot of individually owned cafes, restaurants and bars would like to be in the hotspot business," Hirschman notes, "but none of the national guys are focused on them."

"We're going to focus down on the neighborhood. Our product provides all the back-office authentication, billing and revenue share functions, so it will be easy for them just to plug in."

Hotspots-in-a-box are a dime a dozen, but city-wide hotzones are another thing entirely -- though the possibility of roaming between Aiirnet-powered hotspots and hotzones means there is some synergy.

On the hotzone front, Aiirnet is in serious discussions with two other California cities -- one of which wants to implement a 35-square-mile hotzone. It is also talking to the Rural Broadband Coalition about identifying unserved and underserved rural communities that might benefit from its technology.

Aside from its hotspot-in-a-box, though, the technology is not Aiirnet's. The firm is a technology- and vendor-agnostic integrator. It will use different wireless technologies to suit different circumstances.

In cities, it will use the Tropos mesh technology. The Tropos approach calls for a mesh not of client devices but of access point/routers deployed as densely as required by the anticipated subscriber density.

They are typically mounted on streetlights and other municipal infrastructure. It's no coincidence that Griebling came over from Ricochet Networks, the defunct Seattle firm that used similar kinds of antenna sites to build its not-quite-broadband mobile data networks.

Subscribers to an Aiirnet network will be able to connect using standard Wi-Fi clients from anywhere in their homes -- or offices, restaurants, parks, etc. As long as they're in the coverage area, they can use their account.

"We wanted to accomplish this [network deployment] with no truck rolls, no customized equipment, no antennas on the house," Griebling explains. "Once we blanket the area with coverage, it's a service you can connect to with any standard Wi-Fi client device."

For backhaul -- or as Griebling prefers to put it, for "injecting capacity into the mesh" -- Aiirnet will use Alvarion and Motorola Canopy technology for now. Later it expects to use 802.16 (WiMax) or similar standards-based technologies.

In true rural areas, with very low subscriber density, the mesh approach won't make sense. There, Aiirnet will likely use tried-and-true point-to-multipoint wireless technology.

"Our differentiation in the market is our approach, not our technology," Griebling stresses. "Our approach is to use the right solution for the right environment."

Aiirnet is equally flexible in its business dealings. Although it will function as a WISP in the first deployment in the LA suburb, in other cases -- including one of the other two cities it is talking to now -- it will provide turnkey systems the municipality can operate as a utility.

"We can do either," Hirschman says of the two business models. "I don't think we have a preference."

It will also design and build networks for entrepreneurs that want to provide commercial broadband services in unserved and underserved communities.

Aiirnet's Network Services Division is already providing outsource services to broadband operators from its Denver network operations center (NOC), and recently deployed a wireless DS3 (43 Mbps) broadband backhaul service in Laramie, Wyoming for National Broadband.

The firm claims significant advantages for its approach to providing consumer broadband services. According to Griebling, capital costs per subscriber will be "substantially lower" than for competitive technologies and strategies.

It also has the advantage of being able to "deploy capital incrementally." He means the firm only needs to deploy the Tropos devices to meet current actual capacity requirements.

Initially it will deploy only 10 to 12 of the Tropos routers per square mile. Later as usage increases, that number could double, Griebling says. The mesh network will self-organize to exploit the added capacity.

"We've put a lot of emphasis on making sure that the consumer experiences a service level that is at least comparable with cable and DSL," Hirschman says. "We may hesitate to say 'better than' [cable and DSL], but we definitely want to make it as good as."

Aiirnet appears generally cautious about over-promising. One other advantage of its technology approach -- at least in cities -- is that the networks will support what Griebling calls "nomadic" applications.

He's distinguishing them from true mobile applications, but in fact, in an Aiirnet hotzone, Wi-Fi client devices in vehicles will stay connected at up to 30 mph -- though throughput degrades as velocity increases.

"We're not selling this as a mobile service at all," Griebling stresses. "It's a capability some subscribers will take advantage of, yes. But if a police department, say, buys 20 subscriptions and then calls us up and says they can't use it above 30 mph, we'll say, 'Well, it's not intended as a mobile service.'"

Aiirnet expects that municipal governments and agencies in cities where it sets up will be among its biggest customers. Municipalities want to be able to put connected computers in utility service and public safety vehicles and are exploring the idea of network-based meter reading over the wireless network.

That's just one reason they might be more than willing to work with Aiirnet -- despite the fact that the firm does not offer municipal partners a share of revenues but simply pays for use of city infrastructure for mounting its antennas.

"The cities that are moving [ahead with Aiirnet] realize that they have the opportunity to do this in their community sooner rather than later," Hirschman says. "The ones at the forefront are doing it because they have a vision of how it will enhance their economic development."

For one thing, Aiirnet expects that when the first city goes live, it will be a magnet for Internet users in surrounding communities who will soon catch on that the city is one big hotspot.

The one flaw with Aiirnet's strategy right now is that everything hinges on the city in LA County. It will be the firm's "proof of concept," Hirschman says. Other potential customers and partners will be able to come and observe beta subscribers to see how it all works.

In the meantime, Aiirnet is holding off the other two California cities, which it says are "very anxious" to move ahead. One will likely begin deployment soon after the decision on the proof-of-concept city, the other in January.

One other thing will happen after the fateful November 24th city council meeting. Hirschman and Griebling will start meeting with venture capitalists. Their technology approach may be easy on capital expenses, but it isn't free.



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