Big Cities Plan Big Wireless Networks

By Ed Sutherland

June 25, 2004

The requests for proposals are out from the cities of New York and Los Angeles, and they will pit hotspots vs. EV-DO vs. mesh networks.

Mesh could be the solution to a proposed $1 billion wireless municipal network for New York City emergency workers. The city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has requested proposals from vendors hoping to take part in several three-month pilot programs.

One of the most ambitious and demanding wireless municipal networks envisioned, the system hopes to provide emergency workers with high speed data and voice communications, wireless call boxes, wireless automatic vehicle location and wireless traffic control.

New York City emergency personnel will use the wireless network to access mug shots, check fingerprints on file, review building floor plans, control traffic lights, and link automatic vehicle location services with city dispatch systems.

Both MeshNetworks and Tropos Networks are in the running for the pilot programs, set to be awarded by the city by the end of 2004. The test projects will begin in the spring of 2005.

In contrast to Wi-Fi hotspots, each relying on wired backhaul such as a DSL connection, separate mesh nodes can combine to create flexible networks with more capacity and coverage.

With mesh, you simply need to install several inexpensive nodes, according to Rick Rotondo, vice president of technical marketing for the Maitland, Fla.-based MeshNetworks.

Bert Williams, marketing vice president at Tropos, is even more specific. He believes his San Mateo, Calif.-based company could blanket Manhattan with around 600 Wi-Fi access points.

"It's infeasible to run wire everywhere," as required by traditional Wi-Fi hotspots, according to Williams.

"True broadband requires dense cell architecture," says Williams. For the New York City network, Williams estimates between 15 to 20 Wi-Fi cells in a mesh formation will be needed to cover a square mile.

While unwilling to comment specifically on the proposal Tropos hopes to offer, Williams says the amount of foliage, population density and whether the municipal network chooses 2.4GHz or 4.9GHz equipment will figure into the ultimate cost of the project.

The FCC recently approved using the licensed 4.9GHz spectrum for public safety purposes. If New York City chooses 4.9GHz instead of 2.4GHz, costs will rise because more Wi-Fi cells will be needed to cover the same area.

If Tropos does get the nod to install a mesh network for NYC emergency workers, Williams sees it as a premiere example of what the technology can accomplish.

The mesh networks Tropos has helped to build up to now involved "very different conditions," says Williams. For instance, the largest mesh network the company has created is 16 square miles -- Manhattan is 23 square miles. Previous mesh networks have had sparse populations, such as 1,000 people per square mile. Manhattan has a population density of 66,000 people per square mile, according to Williams.

Tropos and MeshNetworks are both reportedly partnering with unnamed companies submitting bids for the spot as systems integrator, or prime contractor for the network.

IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Electronic Data Systems all attended a bidders' conference.

Lucent is suggesting an alternative to mesh. The Murray Hill, N.J.-based company is proposing the network be based on CDMA Evolution-Data Only (EV-DO) specifications. Verizon currently has an EV-DO network set up in Washington DC and San Diego, which delivers about 2.4Mbps tops, usually only about 500Kbps in real-world use. Sprint is also planning to roll out EV-DO in markets by the end of the year.

The concept of city-wide wireless 'clouds' is attracting the attention of more than New York City planners. In Los Angeles, the LA Community Development Agency is asking vendors to bid on a similar wireless project bringing public access to downtown.

The Pershing Square Public Wi-Fi District Project will give mobile users of the Pershing Square Park broadband Internet access, along with a Web portal where the city of Los Angeles can promote area activities. The city would fund the project for the first two years with the hope that private advertising will support the Wi-Fi access afterwards.



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