A tale of two city Wi-Fi's

Silicon Valley project struggles for multiple approvals while San Francisco's grassroots effort takes flight

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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