The city is asking the provider to offer free access in four
housing complexes and one park. Augusta will pay for the
equipment, hang the access points on its own properties
(mostly utility poles) and pay to power them, Hewett says.
“We’re trying to attract a private company to come in and
start a business,” he explains. “We don’t want them to do anything that’s not profitable.”
To hold back opposition from the phone and cable companies, Hewett approached them first and invited them to
submit proposals to run the network. “We’ve taken their
ammunition away by saying, ‘Don’t fight us, we want you to
work with us,’” he says.
In other situations, equipment providers are encouraging
cities to pony up funds and own their wireless networks. These
providers are marketing their wireless mesh solutions not only
to municipalities in general, but to municipal applications.
“We’ve identified a core set of applications to build a case
for why municipalities need to own their own infrastructure,”
Tropos’ Chari says. “Public safety is an important component,
but there are other valuable applications that can contribute
Bertolini reports. However, the marketplace has shown little
interest in investing in a system expansion.
“We’re caught up in funding for future phases,” he says.
“Our citizens really want it, and they’ll use it. But we’re behind
schedule, and I don’t like it.”
In addition to investor skittishness following Earthlink’s
pullout, there have been concerns about the viability of Wi-Fi
technology. Plus, the Michigan economy is not faring well, so
public financing for the Oakland network is not in the cards.
“Our governments in the state of Michigan are pretty
strapped right now in terms of revenue,” Bertolini says. “When
it comes to building out a broadband network, it’s a large capital expenditure, and who has the dollars right now?”
OPEN SOURCE! OPEN SOURCE!
Concurrent with any technology initiative, community wireless
activists argue that more cities would have the money to foot
the bill for a network if they would use open-source software
and equipment. That would allow cities to band together and
create networks spanning hundreds of miles, because every-
When Earthlink backed away, they sent a ripple through the
whole marketplace. There were some concerns that if
Earthlink couldn’t do it, no one could.
—Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO for Oakland County, Mich.
to the ROI of a Wi-Fi mesh.” For instance, he says Tropos is
working with cities to develop wireless traffic-light and traffic-monitoring systems.
“I think the market is rebounding,” Chari says. “All those
people who were sitting on the sidelines waiting for Earthlink
are now realizing they can do it themselves.”
DESPERATELY SEEKING INVESTORS
The problem, of course, is that not all cities can afford to do
it themselves. Where public funding isn’t an option, cities and
towns are struggling in the wake of the Earthlink failure. Some
municipalities that banked on a model of investment by private-sector service providers are finding their prospects drying up.
“When Earthlink backed away, they sent a ripple through
the whole marketplace,” says Phil Bertolini, deputy county
executive and CIO for Oakland County, Mich. “There were
some concerns that if Earthlink couldn’t do it, no one could.”
Oakland County is not using any taxpayer funds to pay for
its wireless network. It’s letting a private-sector services company host it. But the county has ensured that the provider will
have free access to hang access points on buildings and utility
poles. Also, the county did the bureaucratic legwork to ensure
that the service provider does not have to negotiate separately
with more than 60 cities, villages and townships in the county.
The Wireless Oakland plan is to provide 128k service for free,
with higher bandwidth services offered for a fee.
Five hundred access points have been installed over 18. 5
square miles, and 21,000 users are taking advantage of the free
service, with more than 300 signing up for higher bandwidth,
one’s equipment would operate with everyone else’s equipment, they argue. Several cities in Europe, including Berlin
and Leipzig, Germany, employ open-source mesh networks.
The Community Wireless Network (CUWiN) Foundation
has developed multiple iterations of open-source mesh software and is now at work on an open-source “mesh in a box.”
And at least one major American city is considering using
open-source equipment for its municipal Wi-Fi network.
Boston’s municipal wireless network is in its nascent
stages, operating in only a couple of neighborhoods. It currently depends entirely on donated equipment from BelAir
Networks, MetroNext and AboveNet. All the vendors understand that donating equipment for a pilot is no guarantee of
winning a bid for a citywide network in the future.
“There’s been enough work and enough maturation,” says
OpenAirBoston.net’s Reeve. “I have a lot of people on my cabinet who have been involved in the open-source movement.”
Open-source proponents are hopeful that other cities will
follow Boston’s lead. “When we’re looking at the development
and maturation of open-source technology, it pains me that
nobody knows about these options,” says Sascha Meinrath,
co-founder and president of the CUWin Foundation and
research director for the New America Foundation’s Wireless
Future Program. “At the very least, they should know these
options exist.” 3
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