Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Cutting Downtown's Wires--How Close?

Dan Voelpel's column today announces that members of the Rainier Communications Commission have recommended CenturyTel to build a wireless broadband network in Pierce County with equipment provider SkyPilot. Dan--who has long been a proponent for free wireless Internet access in Tacoma--tells his readers that they "won’t have to imagine for long.
...[t]he Wi-Fi quilt--among the largest in the country when finished--will start unfurling over Pierce County as soon as November."

CenturyTel is proposing a multi-million dollar investment in Pierce County. First, the company will build pilot projects in several of the member jurisdictions--smaller suburban cities--of the RCC. Following an evaluation of these projects, CenturyTel will begin work on a county-wide wireless network, primarily as a backup for public safety that crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Residents and businesses will receive free service during a 60-day test period in the pilot project areas, which may include downtown Tacoma.

A limited-capacity, free Wi-Fi service is planned for full deployment with higher capacity Internet services offered to citizens throughout the county at a competitive price. This is the model already being explored by Oakland County, MI--and it's a good one.

The BIA is excited about the prospect of wireless Internet access throughout downtown Tacoma, especially for great public spaces like the Plaza, but there are still some hurdles to clear. We're completing an update of our earlier white paper on wireless Internet prepared for the Tacoma Technology Consortium and we've been asked to participate in a focus group for the RCC next month. Despite winning the competition for a request for proposals, CenturyTel may find it harder than Dan thinks to build out a system, because:
  • CenturyTel is a newcomer to the market--their only experience with Wi-Fi is deployment of a mesh network in Vail, CO, now under construction;
  • Participating jurisdictions must make available the use of streetlights, utility poles and other tall structures (“vertical mounting assets”)--closely guarded assets with a high market value, and especially problematic in Tacoma where they are not controlled by the City [Note: this idea may not even be working in Vail, according to this news story];
  • Local public safety officials remain skeptical of the security of any wireless network.
Nevertheless, there are many good features of the CenturyTel proposal. A mesh network is pretty much the only way, other than owning your own frequency like Clearwire, to operate a system that's reliable--and reliability, not security, is really the selling point for most users. Both Clearwire and CenturyTel are expected to launch local services this November, and either will provide significant new benefits to those who want to experience downtown's great public spaces.

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