Citywide Wi-Fi's Latest Snags

By Eric Griffith

May 31, 2007

Reports say that both Toledo, Ohio and Silicon Valley are hitting bumps in the road to ubiquitous wireless.

The nation’s cities continue their rocky relationship with installing citywide Wi-Fi. The latest: Toledo, Ohio, and California's Silicon Valley.

Today, the Toledo Blade reported that objections are starting to come in now that the city may end up spending $2.16 million over the next five years to pay MetroFi to unwire.

MetroFi was one of only two respondents to the city's RFP -- the other was local Buckeye CableSystems. The city says Buckeye’s proposal was “not responsive” to what they wanted; Buckeye disputes that, and says it should get more consideration.

MetroFi is in the throes of re-working its business plan a bit. Instead of only offering free, ad-supported services to communities and paying for the installation, the company now wants the municipalities to be a bigger part of the equation, requiring them to buy services form the WISP to become an anchor tenant on the network. This is what Toledo is facing if they sign with MetroFi.

Despite the misgivings of some, the article seems to indicate that MetroFi’s contract will be submitted to the city council by June 12 and that a trial area could be set up in one Toledo neighborhood before the end of this summer.

Over in Aurora, Illinois, MetroFi is facing delays as well, but this time it's not the company's fault. The Beacon News says that negotiations with the local ComEd utility for rights to use poles have prevented deployment of more than 15 to 20% of the city so far. That pushes back the expected completion from September 2007 to... well, they can’t say. Aurora’s deal with MetroFi remains the same as it was before the biz model change in April -- but the city is looking at using it anyway, possibly for first responder use.

Over on the West Coast, the Palo Alto Daily News says the plan to blanket 40 cities in California’s Silicon Valley with Wi-Fi Internet service is “mired in delays.” In fact, deployment hasn’t even begun, due to the complexity they face in covering 1,500 square miles with mesh.

Craig Settles, muni-Wi-Fi analyst, says that despite the setbacks, the group running the project, called Metro Connect, “unlike quite a few others, at the core of it have a sound idea.” The plan for wireless Silicon Valley was to support more than just plain old Internet access, but Settles says simpler may be better.

“Metro Connect ought to consider finding two, maybe three applications that most of the cities and counties involved can agree on. Perhaps a universal Wi-Fi network for every mobile government worker who completes forms,” suggest Settles. He also suggests an emergency notification system based on Wi-Fi in the case of the next big quake or fire in the area.

Wireless Silicon Valley still hopes that two one-square-mile test areas in Palo Alto and San Carlos will be running this summer; they were originally supposed to be done by February.  Metro Connect is a consortium of companies comprised of IBM, Cisco Systems, Azulstar and SeaKay.

Despite delays in these areas, muni-Fi tests are launching everywhere. Some of the latest announcements: Baltimore just launched five hotspots with Towson University; public safety and municipal offices in Malden, Massachusetts will use wireless to replace leased lines; Chicago suburb Bellwood is using a Proxim-based mesh for public safety and eventually public use; and Longview, Texas is getting ready to launch its own citywide wireless. Outside of the U.S., in Iceland, Firetide mesh equipment is unwiring four fishing/vacation communities, while in Galatsi, Greece, home of the 2004 Olympics, the city is getting a four-square-mile mesh network from Strix Systems.



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