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Is plug pulled on Wi-Fi plan?

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JAMES P. LEUTE
October 31, 2007
— Nationwide industry concerns have forced a local group to rethink its strategy of bringing wireless Internet service to Rock County.

Escalating costs, evolving technology and higher expectations have prompted municipalities around the country to scale back plans to blanket areas with public-access wireless computer networks, often referred to as Wi-Fi.


Planned Wi-Fi projects in San Francisco and Houston are dead. Cities such as Chicago and St. Louis have suspended or delayed plans. Even Silicon Valley has postponed its planned network.


“In the last several months, there’s been a great deal of realism that’s been brought to bear on Wi-Fi in general, and costs are at the heart of the matter,” said Mickey Crittenden, Rock County’s information technology director.


Crittenden and Gordy LaChance of the city of Janesville’s information technology department said communities are struggling to come up with the right business model for Wi-Fi networks that work for service providers, municipalities and users.


Both have been involved in an effort to bring a wireless network to Rock County. Initial forecasts called for such a network sometime in 2007, but they’ve been scaled back to hot spots in Janesville, Beloit and other urban areas. And such a system is likely years off.


“Conventional wisdom used to be that you need so many access points per square mile, but actually, you need twice that because of today’s technology that includes streaming audio and video,” Crittenden said. “To get the solid coverage you need, you need higher bandwidths, and you need it inside buildings.”


That costs millions of dollars, and the source of that money is undetermined.


LaChance said the group is preparing a request for qualifications to gauge vendor interest in a local project.


“There’s a lot of turmoil in the Wi-Fi industry,” LaChance said. “We don’t want to stop what we’re doing, but we get the sense this may be the wrong time.


“We’re moving, but we’re not moving quickly. We’ll let the market drive our next step.”


If the group gets no responses from possible vendors, the wireless plan likely will be tabled. Solid responses would guide the group’s next step, LaChance said.


Despite industry concerns, MuniWireless.com, a New York-based blog that tracks municipal wireless trends, recently said that areas with regional or citywide wireless, hot spots or municipal-use systems have more than tripled in the past two years.


Nationally, the top goal for municipalities appears to be public safety. That’s the case from Rock County’s perspective, Crittenden said.


A Wi-Fi test this summer for the county’s public safety users went well, he said.


Expanding the public safety zones into a general-use network that covers every nook and cranny of the county’s urban areas is the goal, Crittenden said.


But it’s not without its challenges.


“Users have expectations of getting a signal inside a building or house,” LaChance said. “Most business models only take it to the curb or wall, and for that, you need fewer access points,” he said. “It’s an entirely different ballgame when you talk about taking it inside a building.”


A feasibility study showed that blanket coverage in Rock County is out of the question. Revenue sources aren’t sufficient to support a population of more than 150,000 people spread over 726 square miles.


“Part of the voyage is really grasping the best business model that makes sure the providers are successful, makes sure the municipalities realize benefits and makes sure the customers get what they need at a reasonable cost,” Crittenden said.



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