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Minneapolis Proves That Big City Wireless Municipal Networks Can Work

In contrast to similar projects beset by cancellations or cutbacks, the city's massive 57-square-mile metro Wi-Fi network has surpassed expectations.

With many large-city wireless municipal networks canceled or sharply cut back, the massive 57-square-mile metro Wi-Fi network covering Minneapolis stands out in bold relief because it works so well and has met and surpassed its expectations.

A recent test by independent third-party consulting firm Novarum found that the Minneapolis network consistently delivered reliable speeds for both 802.11n and 802.11g customers that rival cable and exceed 3G and DSL speeds.

More importantly, the Minneapolis network avoided the Byzantine political and business intrigues that killed other large-city municipal wireless projects. The major involved parties that worked together include the city of Minneapolis, USI Wireless, and BelAir Networks.

"We believe the Minneapolis area coverage is the biggest in the world," BelAir CTO Stephen Rayment said in an interview Thursday. "We have 450 deployments around the world, but Minneapolis is our poster child. The network delivers 3 Mbps total in up- and downlinks." Rayment said the BelAir200 multiswitch router is the key to the network's high performance because it can deliver a combination of broadband speeds over Wi-Fi, WiMax, cellular, and 4.9-GHz public-safety spectrums.

The public-safety feature of the network came into play sooner than expected when it was pressed into service following the I-35W bridge collapse last year.

From the beginning, the city indicated it wanted much from the network in return for its support. "Minneapolis has chosen both a business model and a technology solution that ensures immediate, ongoing, and sustainable benefits to our citizens, visitors, municipal workers, and public-safety personnel," Mayor R.T. Rybak said in describing the city's involvement.

In addition to the value of the network for public-safety use, city workers can purchase broadband for a cut rate of $12 a month and consumers can get service for $20 a month. Citizens of modest means will be offered low-cost access to the Internet. Joe Caldwell, CEO of USI Wireless, has noted that the ISP is contributing $500,000 to the city's Digital Inclusion Fund, which helps bridge the digital divide.

Rayment said BelAir's four-radio switches are robust enough to offer four times the aggregate throughput of single radio systems that have plagued some municipal Wi-Fi systems.

"There's so much talk of gloom and doom in the municipal market," Rayment said. "But by taking a broad view of the market" it's possible to be successful. By utilizing a municipal network for multiple uses like public safety, delivery of broadband to people of modest means, and typical consumer and business usages, a municipal network can work well for all concerned, he said.

He noted that BelAir has supplied equipment to large wireless municipal deployments in Toronto and London.

BelAir is already using WiMax technology effectively, utilizing it initially for back haul of Wi-Fi networks. Additional WiMax applications can be added as WiMax continues to mature.

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