By Naomi Graychase
November 03, 2004
Lompoc, Calif., is joining the fray of wireless residential broadband by adding the service offerings made by the city’s utilities department, all in hopes of generating some revenue and recognition.
As more and more cities jump into the emerging Wi-Fi as residential broadband market, a wide variety of business models are being tested. Starting early next year, the city of Lompoc, Calif., a city of 40,000 located just north of Santa Barbara on the state’s central coast, plans to join the growing number of American cities offering wireless access. In its case, wireless access will be offered as a city-run utility.
In response to a report issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which stated that the number of households using broadband increased by 55% in 2002, the Lompoc city council decided to take initiative and launch its own broadband access as part of the Lompoc Utility Department. The hope is that the city’s $26 million investment in wireless and fiber optic networks will pay off by generating revenue for the city in years to come.
The network will use Tropos Networks mesh architecture equipment based on 802.11b and the faster 802.11g (which Tropos just announced). Other cities using Tropos equipment on live networks currently include Half Moon Bay and San Mateo, Calif., and Chaska, Minn. The City of Lompoc is planning to deploy 130 piece of equipment, each with a range of about 300 feet.
Unlike Philadelphia, where a new position—Chief Information/Technology Officer—has been created to oversee wireless deployment, Lompoc’s city council has decided they can best deploy the network by contracting out for project management. Mark McKibben, owner of McKibben Consulting, the marketing firm which conducted the feasibility study that convinced the city to green light the multi-million dollar project, is also acting as Project Manager. He says the city is devising its own unique business model as it goes.
“We talked to a lot of other folks who have done various flavors of Wi-Fi,” says McKibben. “Chaska, Minnesota has a system that is running now, but they haven’t started charging for their subscriptions. They are implementing a ‘try before you buy’ model. We won’t do that, so their business model is different, but their architecture is virtually the same as ours.”
Lompoc is located next to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Air Force Space Command’s largest base, which is responsible for all Department of Defense space and missile launch activities on the West Coast. Every American satellite destined for near polar orbit is launched from Vandenberg.
“Vandenberg is the military version of Cape Canaveral,” says McKibben, “So there are literally satellite and rocket scientists who hang around the Lompoc area.”
Traditionally, the city has been an agricultural community, but it is also home to a large federal prison, which employs a significant portion of the population.
McKibben says his feasibility study clearly demonstrated that there exists an interested user base in this community. The Lompoc Utility Department is counting on signing up more than 4,000 subscribers in the first 18 months to two years.
Lompoc will not be getting into the business of supplying hardware to its subscribers. “Right now, the business model we call for the customer to acquire their own equipment,” says McKibben. “That’s different than Chaska; they are providing the card that goes in the computer. We are going to work with local retailers and companies that can provide the equipment.”
Pricing for the service hasn’t yet been announced, but McKibben promises rates that are competitive, and no roaming charges will be incurred while users are inside the city network. Once the system is deployed early next year, users should be able to maintain seamless Wi-Fi access anywhere within the 5.5 square mile area of the city.
“You will be able to drive around town and keep your connection going,” says McKibben. “You could have a laptop in a police car and they could be driving around accessing the network while they’re driving. The network does a handoff.”
Since the Lompoc’s citywide service will only be available inside city limits, the planners are looking at ways to allow their customers to “roam” on other networks when they travel to other towns and cities.
Of the city council’s decision to become a wired/wireless community, McKibben says, “I am very impressed by the vision of the city council in Lompoc. They are very forward-thinking. Lompoc isn’t a town that immediately pops into your head when you think of this part of the world, but when this project is done, it will be one of the best-connected communities in the United States.”