Wireless Silicon Valley Picks Provider

By Eric Griffith

September 06, 2006

UPDATED: The Metro Connect consortium (including Cisco and IBM) will install a network serving 2.4 million potential customers.

Metro Connect, a consortium made up of Cisco Systems, IBM, Azulstar and community-centric SeaKay, has been picked to run the Wireless Silicon Valley Initiative's network.

Metro Connect beat out VeriLAN and MetroFi for the job. Earlier this year, the group (minus Azulstar) was a contender for San Francisco's TechConnect project, but lost the bid to the EarthLink/Google team-up.

The Wireless Silicon Valley network is expected to spread across 1,500 square miles to encompass 38 to 42 different municipalities (depending on who you listen to) including cites like Fremont, Newark and Santa Cruz, with most of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties included. Each city gets to ratify use of the network independently, and cities are free to work with other providers if they prefer. Several Silicon Valley cities already have networks. For example, Mountain View in Santa Clara county has a free public Wi-Fi network set up by Google (the company headquarters is in Mountain View).

"We're talking with all the communities," says Alan Cohen, senior director of mobility solutions at Cisco.

Wireless Silicon Valley's proposed network will be used by the general public for wireless broadband, and will also have commercial use and possibly even first responder use when other communications systems are not available. Base broadband service will be "free" — perhaps advertising-based — up to 1 Megabit per second (Mbps) for downloads. Indoor service will require purchase of a "wireless modem" to extend the signal. Premium services will also be offered, including faster speed, video streaming and voice over Wi-Fi.

The equipment will be provided by Cisco, using the company's latest mesh-based Wi-Fi hardware. An upgrade program will be put in place to make sure new technologies are made available. The network will likely need anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 access points when finished, according to Cohen. Cisco's Aironet 1500 mesh units provide 11b/g for access and use 5GHz 802.11a for backhaul.

Cisco's Cohen says, "One thing important for everyone to pay attention to is that this is a very collaborative effort between our partners, the Silicon Valley Wireless Project, and others."

IBM will design the network — Cohen calls them "the master integrator" — building in functions like wireless meter reading and traffic monitoring. Both Cisco and IBM have a large number of employees in the area, which probably didn't hurt Metro Connect's chances.

Municipal Wi-Fi analyst Craig Settles says this project could legitimize both Cisco and IBM in the muni wireless space. "The publicity, credibility and industry influence that will come to them is huge," he says, but he adds that the hard work involved in deployment and management of the network can't be taken lightly.

California-based SeaKay will handle the challenge of working with the city governments, public agencies and digital inclusion programs to make sure the network works for them. "They'll focus on the non-profit angle of the offering," Cohen says.

"Seakay has been an early advocate of finding corporate and philanthropic organizations to sponsor muni networks," Settles says. He believes the approach has "significant merit, and is a much more viable financial approach than relying on banner ads... If the partnership doesn't smother them — the company only has a handful of people — SeaKay will get a lot of other cities to view sponsorships in a credible light."

Azulstar will be the day-to-day 802.11b/g network operator. The company also runs the citywide Wi-Fi found in cities like Rio Rancho, New Mexico, as well as towns in Michigan, including its home city of Grand Haven.

IBM's wireless services director is quoted in the New York Times today saying the project will cost between $75 to $250 million dollars, most of which is likely to come out of Cisco's and IBM's pockets, but the final sources of funding are yet to be determined. Taxpayer involvement is unlikely.

Overall, Cohen says, "It's a breathtaking endeavor, and resets the bar for what a municipal mesh network can do." He adds that the membership of Silicon Valley Metro Connect (the full name for the group's push there; it was SF Metro Connect when trying to land San Francisco) won't necessarily stop with the four announced partners. For example, considering that the tier of free access will likely require advertising support, a partner to facilitate that is possible if not probable.

Negotiations will now take place between the consortium and the San Mateo County Telecommunications Authority (SAMCAT), which has authority to speak for at least 18 of the communities. Items yet to be worked out include rights to attach equipment to utility poles or buildings as needed. Cohen says negotiations are expected to be aggressively pushed to finish within 30 days.

The network will take multiple years to fully install, but the first areas of coverage could be in place before the end of 2006. As early as 2007, Silicon Valley Metro Connect will also look at using WiMax/802.16 to get better throughput.

"There's a lot of airspace to cover," says Cohen. "A lot of airspace."

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