Sprint Offshoot Tries Muni Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

March 21, 2006

More and more incumbent broadband providers are accepting that citywide wireless networks are not going away.

Remember when cable and phone companies with a broadband business to protect said municipal Wi-Fi was too expensive, doomed and/or foolish? Those days may officially be over. The Wall Street Journal covered this fact just this week, running down a number of the deals that former anti-muni-Wi-Fi companies like Verizon and Time Warner are launching to test out the service themselves.

The latest comes from Sprint Nextel's local communication company, which later this year will be rolled out as a brand new business called Embarq (a move announced when the Sprint & Nextel merger went through last year). They've set up a couple of one square mile trial networks in the city of Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, and as such one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

The goal: to figure out what, if any, business model really works for Embarq to continue to provide citywide Wi-Fi in Henderson and elsewhere (other trials are currently being planned).

"We approached Henderson," says Brian Koening, Manager of Emerging Technologies for the future Embarq, which provides service in 18 states. "It's one of our largest markets from a telecommunications perspective... they had interest in municipal Wi-Fi back in October, they mentioned it in the local press. That's when my group started working on muni Wi-Fi."

The Henderson test networks, set up with BelAir Networks mesh equipment, cover an area downtown, as well as one called The District, where there are several apartments, offices and shopping. Right now, it's considered an outdoor network, though signals might penetrate walls for indoor use in some areas, but nothing has been tested to guarantee it. Access is free to all users, and that will remain in effect until May 31, when the trial comes to an end. By then, Embarq hopes to have a plan in place for the future, but for now pricing post-trial is unknown. "It depends on the business model for the city," says Koening. "There's several options... we'll negotiate with the city on what future deployments will look like. We won't turn the lights out on the network."

Embarq expects to use equipment from other mesh vendors in other trials, and probably won't settle on just one equipment provider for all deployments, as different cities may need different types of products. Sprint/Nextel has also responded to a request for proposal (RFP) by the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, according to MuniWireless.com.

Other incumbent providers now getting into the muni Wi-Fi game include: AT&T, which responded to RFPs for wireless networks in Michigan and may become a reseller on the Corpus Christi, Texas network; a bid by Time Warner on wireless in Dublin, Ohio; and the MobilePro/NeoReach Wi-Fi networks in various Arizona cities, which were picked as the preferred wireless broadband for Cox Communications (which won a state contract to provide broadband). BellSouth (soon to be part of AT&T) announced yesterday that it would test WiMax soon for big deployments like what it does today in cities like New Orleans with proprietary technology. Even companies not actively looking to provide wireless broadband service are investing in companies that do -- like Comcast, which put money into BelAir Networks.

Why the big switch in attitude from the incumbents? For starters, the initial complaints about cities wasting taxpayer money didn't hold up, since most municipalities are putting the onus of deployment and management on third parties. Sprint Nextel (Embarq) is shouldering all the deployment costs in Henderson, for example, as will most providers, even in cities like Philadelphia. The companies thought they couldn't compete with cities using the citizens' cash, but again, most cities are handing over all the heavy lifting to the network providers.

That doesn't mean it's all sweetness and light, though. Muni-Wi-Fi consultant Craig Settles says in his blog "Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless" that cities should remain vigilant about harmful legislation, and that working with incumbents could be tricky, depending on the company's true mindset: "Don’t forget the reason muni wireless initiatives started," he writes. "Incumbents are highly profit-motivated, so large constituent groups were underserved or not served at all because they didn’t fit into providers’ profit analysis worksheets. When using profit-minded entities to help solve what are public service and public safety objectives, seek out those whose motivations are not at cross-purposes with your city."

Look for an interview with Craig Settles tomorrow on Wi-Fi Planet.



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