A tale of two city Wi-Fi’s

Different approaches to wireless Internet access in San Francisco and neighbouring Silicon Valley are producing very different results, with one project springing up around the city and the other inching through regulatory procedures.

The high-tech meccas are still pursuing municipal wireless after the first bubble in that industry burst last year. The free-for-cities business model that was to have covered all major U.S. cities in Wi-Fi failed because of high costs and low subscription rates, with some thorny political battles thrown in. San Francisco was one of the most high-profile casualties.

But with a new, grassroots approach, San Francisco seems to be leaping ahead of Silicon Valley, a breeding ground for much of the technology behind the concept. A company called Meraki is recruiting San Francisco residents to host its network infrastructure, while competitive ISP (Internet service provider) Covad Communications Group tries to get multiple approvals for a one-square-mile test network in Silicon Valley. On the bright side, Covad now plans to start deploying some radios on that test network beginning next week, according to Cisco Systems, which is supplying the equipment. Covad was not available for comment.

Both communities have been left at the altar before. San Francisco’s network was to have been built and operated by EarthLink before that company pulled out of the Wi-Fi business in the middle of a fierce fight between the city’s mayor and board of supervisors. Silicon Valley’s first network partner, Azulstar, failed to raise approximately US$500,000 for two test networks despite promising a vast regional network that would serve the very cities that many high-tech venture capitalists call home.

In the wake of the muni meltdown, the two areas have moved in different directions, each with its own advantages and downsides. That’s the way municipal wireless as a whole is moving, as cities and regions seek the right local approach rather than a cookie-cutter solution, analysts said.

Meraki is building its San Francisco network by offering residents free Wi-Fi repeaters and broadband Internet connections in exchange for router mounting locations, such as balconies and rooftops. The plan is to provide coverage in neighbourhood homes and public areas without a complicated lease agreement or an expensive network buildout. Nearly 10,000 residents have accepted the deal so far, according to Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas. This map shows the location of each repeater and the number of people using it.

The company expects to reach most of the city’s population for between $1 million and $3 million, he said. Meraki attributes some of its savings to the self-regulating nature of its network, which Biswas said cuts out the need for expensive planning and maintenance. And because it doesn’t use city or utility assets such as streetlamps, Meraki doesn’t need any bureaucratic approvals, he added.

Meraki has gotten some help from San Francisco city government on rolling out Wi-Fi in affordable housing, but only in the form of introductions to housing officials, Biswas said. The city is highlighting Meraki’s project as a way to help close the digital divide, one of the stated purposes of the EarthLink network.

Meraki wants to have a presence in every San Francisco neighbourhood by the end of this year and cover those neighbourhoods by the middle of 2009, Biswas said. So far, about 100,000 people have used the network, he said. The San Francisco project is one of a kind, a giant test for Meraki, he added. Ordinarily, Meraki sells its gear to groups that are trying to get cities online, especially in the developing world, Biswas said.

Silicon Valley started with a plan even bolder than San Francisco’s: to cover a region stretching virtually all the way from San Francisco’s southern border down to the beach town of Santa Cruz, and from the Pacific to Milpitas across San Francisco Bay. It envisioned multiple wireless networks, including Wi-Fi, WiMax and a special network for public safety. Big-name backers IBM and Cisco Systems, as well as nonprofit SeaKay, are still part of the consortium backing the network, which was spearheaded by the group Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network.

But after Azulstar left and Covad joined the consortium, the project was scaled back to focus on a Wi-Fi mesh to serve small businesses, at least in the beginning. That service would complement the more expensive high-speed wireless Covad already sells to large enterprises.

“We want to make sure we walk before we run,” Covad Vice President of Wireless Strategy Alan Howe said in February.

So far, the project seems to be still in the walking phase. On June 23, nearly four months after Covad announced it was joining the effort and would build a one-square-mile test network in San Carlos, California, the company won approval from the city council to mount radios on city assets such as light poles. It is still seeking permissions from the California Department of Transportation and from local school officials, because there is a state highway and a school within the test area, said Seth Fearey, vice president and chief operating officer of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network.

“I think there were lessons learned as this went along,” Fearey said, adding that the point of the test network is to learn about all aspects of doing a job Covad has never done before.

Realizing the original vision of the network, spanning about 1,500 square miles and 40 municipalities, would require many more such approvals. But despite its lumbering gait, a project like Silicon Valley’s has benefits that some faster-growing systems don’t.

Volunteer networks, such as Meraki’s San Francisco project and the consumer-hosted sharing system offered by Spain’s Fon, can only go so far in meeting the needs of a city and its residents, analysts said. Coverage just isn’t consistent enough, said Esme Vos, editor of Muniwireless.com.

“It is an answer if the city doesn’t want to use it at all for its own purposes,” such as public safety or wireless meter reading, she said. However, “there’s no one to scream at, at the end of the day, when the thing doesn’t work.”

But in a large city, such a network for use on the go could complement ubiquitous wired broadband services, said Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting.

What’s new in municipal wireless is the acknowledgement that each type of network has its place, she said.

“There is no model that works everywhere,” Paolini said.

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