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Cisco Builds Massive Wi-Fi Network In Italian Province

The network stretches across 4,800 square kilometers and will deliver broadband services and applications to more than 200 rural towns.

Cisco Systems on Thursday unveiled that the Italian Province of Brescia is using its Wi-Fi mesh equipment to deploy a wireless network that stretches across 4,800 square kilometers. The network will deliver broadband services and applications like voice-over-IP to over 200 rural towns.

Cisco says this is one of the largest Wi-Fi deployments to date. Wi-Fi mesh, which provides blanket coverage over wide areas by interconnecting access points, has become a de facto standard for municipal deployments.

Brescia tapped Cisco to provide the necessary equipment, including access points to be mounted on light poles, switches at town halls, and a management system at the core of the network. Brescia is a trendsetter for mega-scale wireless deployments. About 600 access points have been deployed already and another 200 will go up before the build-out is completed.

Half of the province's population doesn't have Internet access, but that should change once the Wi-Fi network is operational. "Cables were expensive to bring into the area and cellular couldn't be justified. But Wi-Fi mesh is ideal for reaching remote areas," said Joel Vincent, Cisco's outdoor wireless senior marketing manager, in an interview. Other services will include VoIP and videoconferencing for use by city agencies and local businesses. Once more businesses in the province get access to the Internet and VoIP, they'll be able to compete globally, Vincent says.

More than 300 U.S. municipalities have deployed or are in the process of deploying citywide Wi-Fi networks. Many of them include small towns and remote villages. But larger scale deployments are becoming more common across the globe. "We're seeing a trend where entire geographical areas and even entire countries are deploying Wi-Fi mesh to reach larger populations," says Vincent. Cisco also has deals to provide equipment for a Wi-Fi mesh network in the Northern region of Singapore and in Silicon Valley.

Earlier this month, Mexico City struck a deal with ZTE, China's telecom equipment provider, to set up wireless hotspots that will connect municipal services and agencies. The network could be expanded city-wide to offer residents Internet access.

Pakistan last year signed up Motorola to deploy one of the world's largest networks based on mobile WiMax, which promises greater range and speed than Wi-Fi and additional mobility to browse the Web while walking or riding in cars. Another city with a large WiMax deployment is Taipei, Taiwan.

Brescia chose Wi-Fi mesh because WiMax is still a technology in its infancy. Wi-Fi is built into most mobile devices like laptops and smartphones and it works in the unlicensed spectrum, which means users don't necessarily have to pay a monthly fee to use it. WiMax's advantage is that it's faster than Wi-Fi and covers larger distances. "Public transportation won't give the performance of a car, but it will get you from point A to point B successfully and it will be cheaper. That's the analogy that can be applied to Wi-Fi and WiMax," says Vincent.

Many cities are not cut out to build, operate, and manage metro-scale Wi-Fi networks on their own, so they let service providers pick up the financial burden and in return, they give permission to mount equipment on light poles and public buildings. "But if there isn't enough revenue to justify the network, the service provider can shut it down at any time," said Vincent. Brescia took a different approach by putting up $2.64 million (2 million) and partnering with a service provider to cover the other half of the costs.

By partnering with a service provider instead of handing over all responsibility to one, the province will dictate how the network is used by city workers, residents, and businesses. Other municipalities are likely to follow with similar business models.

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