Mobile
Commentary
2/27/2008
06:55 PM
Richard Martin
Richard Martin
Commentary
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In Silicon Valley, A Way Forward For Muni Wireless

This week's news that Covad Communications has stepped in as the primary network provider on the stalled Silicon Valley Wireless project may allow us, in Wall Street parlance, to "call the bottom" on the ailing business of providing widespread, low-cost municipal wireless access.

This week's news that Covad Communications has stepped in as the primary network provider on the stalled Silicon Valley Wireless project may allow us, in Wall Street parlance, to "call the bottom" on the ailing business of providing widespread, low-cost municipal wireless access.Covad, which already has a decent business providing wireless broadband to several markets on the San Jose Peninsula, will use Cisco mesh gear to build upon its existing footprint, starting with a small pilot program in San Carlos.

To say the least, this is a limited effort: a three-month, one-square-mile test network in downtown San Carlos. The real distinction of the project, though, is that it's explicitly targeted at city agencies and municipal workers, along with small businesses and home offices in the area (of which there are hundreds). No consumer service is planned, free or otherwise, at least to start.

That turns the original ad-supported, free, or very cheap consumer business model for muni wireless on its head -- and it may be the model for other networks that could actually be viable and reliable in urban areas across the land.

"The perspective they're coming from, Covad is viewing this as extension of their existing business," says Craig Settles, a wireless networking consultant and author of "Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless: Applying Lessons From Philadelphia's Wi-Fi Story" as opposed to starting from scratch to build a complete new network.

Rather than relying on ads to generate revenue, Covad will sell services to government agencies and local businesses on an a la carte basis. Azulstar, initially tagged as the service provider for the grandiose 44-city version of the Silicon Valley Wireless project, is no longer in the picture.

If the pilot in San Carlos proves viable, Covad will gradually build the network out to serve other municipalities on the Peninsula. That sounds like a much more rational business plan than the other would-be providers who have attempted to build out expansive, consumer-focused Wi-Fi networks -- and mostly failed.

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