U.S. Needs Muni Wi-Fi to Plug Broadband Wireless Gap

Municipal Wi-Fi projects could help close the chasm between broadband Internet access in the United States and other countries, according to industry leaders at the W2i Digital Cities Convention.

PHILADELPHIA—Broadband Internet access in the United States is languishing behind other countries and without municipal Wi-Fi projects the situation is only likely to get worse.

That was the consensus of industry leaders who gathered here this week to discuss the opportunity for public-private partnerships in broadband wireless at the W2i Digital Cities Convention.

Even as broadband use languishes here, its flourishing in other countries—particularly those interested in providing services to remote, underdeveloped areas. Esme Vos, president of MuniWireless, said public-private partnerships are working with Wi-Fi as the centerpiece of economic development plans, particularly in Asia and Latin America, where "they need voice first and foremost and data second."

She noted recent reports on the economic impact such development would have on the United States and suggested that private-public partnerships would enable rapid broadband build-outs in areas where incumbent providers refuse to provide service because they dont find it economically feasible. A 2001 study from the Brookings Institution predicted 1.2 million jobs and as much as $500 billion per year could be added to the U.S. economy if all homes had basic broadband services.

Tyler van Houwelingen, founder of Azulstar, a Grand Haven, Mich., company focused on mass deployment of wide area wholesale networks and services, said municipal broadband service in Grand Haven "put two dial-up companies out of business" after the high-speed service was made available to homes at under $20 per month. Azulstar has deployed metro networks in Grand Haven and Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about Rio Ranchos Wi-Fi plans.

"Its not about the network anymore," Houwelingen said. "Its about the services benefiting the community. Building the network is only the first step."

The real issues, he said, are a communitys expectations of the network—how it ties to a citys economic development plan, city services and services to be delivered to residents. "Our goal is not to put dial-ups out of business," he said.

"Our goal is to be the new local loop for a variety of partners. Instead of putting a dial-up out of business, we want them migrate their customers to our network."

Houwelingen described the private-public balance in cities where Azulstar has worked. "In every case so far weve funded the network and then we bring in these partners that we have established," Houwelingen said. "Every time we go in, we create an affiliate company in each one of the areas so it actually is a local company that theyre dealing with." Azulstar partnered with Meru Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif., on the Rio Rancho build-out.

He predicted BPL (broadband over powerline) would be the next big area of opportunity for service providers working with municipalities. "The power here is that the network reaches 100 percent of the population," Houwelingen said.

This ubiquitous access, he said, provides an opportunity for municipalities to use a BPL network to communicate and offer citywide services, such as meter-reading, over the network.

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