Rio Rancho: Innovations for Voice

By Gerry Blackwell

http://www.wi-fiplanet.com/columns/article.php/3522196/Rio-Rancho-Innovations-for-Voice.htm (Back to article)

For an intro on Rio Rancho, New Mexico's citywide VoWi-Fi, check out part one.

One of the company’s VoWi-Fi innovations is to bundle a stripped-down, small office version of Broadsoft’s software PBX with its business phone service. The business service costs $44.95 a month and includes unlimited long distance calling within the U.S. and Canada, and mobile service within the coverage area. The software PBX, which typically runs on a secretary’s or receptionist’s PC, provides basic PBX features, including voice mail, call forwarding and conferencing. The receptionist can also transfer calls and see who is on the phone.

In its current configuration, the PBX will support up to 15 lines, but the city of Rio Rancho, a partner in the project, is now requesting that the soft PBX be available to larger businesses as well. Azulstar founder and CEO Tyler Van Houwelingen thinks it will be possible to do this.

Residential phone service, which also includes unlimited long distance calling in the U.S. and Canada and mobile service, costs $29.99. Internet access service, required to get phone service, costs $19.95 for a 256 kilobits per second (Kbps), $29.99 for 768 Kbps and $39.95 for 1.5 Megabits per second (Mbps).

One of the most interesting developments in the Rio Rancho market is a possible deal with a private builder to build Wi-Fi connectivity into new homes. Rio Rancho is in the midst of a building boom. It was America’s fastest growing city last year in terms of new home starts. The deal “may” block the telephone company from laying copper in the development of 100 homes, Van Houwelingen says, although a cable TV company will be allowed in. Home owners would be able to choose between the Azulstar phone service or any VoIP service running over either the Wi-Fi or cable network.

“That to me is just phenomenal,” Van Houwelingen says of the possibility of locking out the phone company. “The builder wants to do it – he’s gung-ho. I think it would be an historical event.” No such deal had been signed at the time of writing, however.

Private investors in Michigan and New Mexico funded the build-out of the networks in Grand Haven and Rio Rancho. The Grand Haven network has now expanded to take in two nearby communities, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg. In all of these cities, the municipality provides rights of way for installing access points. In return, Azulstar shares revenues.

Rio Rancho is also a major customer. It uses the network to link the LANs in different city buildings and to provide communications for mobile workers. It is piloting a system that allows police to accept credit card payment for traffic violations on the spot and immediately transmit transaction data over the network to a data center. It is also exploring the idea of installing video cameras in police cruisers as an officer safety measure. The cameras could continuously transmit video back to a dispatcher showing what the officers were seeing.

The police and other city applications run on separate reserved spectrum licensed by the FCC for use by emergency response organizations – 50MHz in the 4.9GHz band. Wi-Fi 802.11a radios can be configured to work in this band.

Van Houwelingen is non-committal about the possibility of Azulstar lighting up other municipalities in the short term. There is no impediment, he explains – other than money. “There’s a couple of million bucks you’ve got to spend [to build a network like the one in Rio Rancho],” he points out. The implication is that Azulstar’s investors are unwilling to sink any more money into metro-wide deployments until the first ones begin to bear fruit. Van Houwelingen says Grand Haven is already breaking even on an operational basis, but is not close to paying back the investment yet.  

In the meantime, the company has a few other irons in the fire. It is bidding against heavy-hitters such as IBM and Siemens on an RFP (Request for Proposal) from Oakland County in Michigan to provide a county-wide Wi-Fi network. The network would cover 1,000 square miles.

Azulstar is also working with the Department of Transport in New Mexico on an initiative to link traffic signals using Wi-Fi, both to each other and to a central control point. The state currently uses dial-up connections to traffic signals. As well as providing more efficient, higher-bandwidth links for controlling signals, the Wi-Fi connections would make it possible to stream video from the scene of an accident or show traffic conditions. The first pilot will link six traffic signals on a highway leading into Rio Rancho.

The traffic signal project is appealing not just because it could be lucrative in its own right – “there are a lot of traffic signals out there,” Van Houwelingen points out – but also because it would allow the company to build out its network faster in areas not now covered.

Azulstar is an at the very least an interesting company to watch. Can it make metro-wide VoWi-Fi a profitable proposition. We’ll keep a watch and report back.