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Is Wireless the New Wired?

States and municipalities are scurrying to provide border-to-border wireless communication access. But there's still lots of room - and use - for fiber.

April/May 06
It wasn't that long ago that data-intensive companies on site searches had to look long and hard to find sites wired enough to suit their needs, while communities boasted about ubiquitous ISDN service, then how many miles of fiber they had installed. Today, it's hard to find a company that isn't data-intensive, but it's also getting harder to find a site that's not well-wired.

"It's typically fiber these days - it's not copper," says Pete Marin, senior vice president at The Staubach Company. "Ten years ago you would run into a lot of areas where you were dealing with digital microwave, but the boom of the 1990s buried a lot of fiber in the ground, and there's a lot of dark fiber left."

Fiber, long considered the gold standard for delivering fast and high-quality voice and data connections, is quite simply becoming commonplace, Marin says: "Fiber is so prolific these days that it's almost difficult to find a market where you don't have fiber. You've got fiber running in conduits along every interstate highway in the U.S."

So is everyone satisfied? Of course not. As long as communities compete with one another for new jobs and factories, they'll seek ways to differentiate themselves. Being well-wired is so '90s - now, many people and communities want to be wireless.

Consider the case of Rhode Island. The New England state is on a quest to become the first in the United States with border-to-border wireless broadband access. According to Melissa Withers of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation - and the state's nonprofit Business Innovation Factory that's behind the project - this kind of network will break down barriers to innovation and give the small state a large place on the map as an ideal place to test new business models. "It is almost impossible to imagine a serious business that will not benefit from a border-to-border wireless broadband network," she says.

Making Wireless Happen
"The real advantage to an enterprise would be mobility for the work force out and about in the city, or on a campus spread out in several locations, or if you anticipate being in a location where the work force would spend some time outdoors," says Cole Reinwand. As vice president of product strategy and marketing for EarthLink Municipal Networks, Reinwand spends his days figuring out how to expand wireless broadband service across American cities.

EarthLink has been chosen to provide citywide wireless service in Philadelphia and Anaheim, says Reinwand, and is a finalist in other cities from Oregon to Minnesota to Virginia to Massachusetts. The service will provide high-speed connections anywhere in town to properly equipped laptop computers, PDAs, Wi-Fi-enabled phones, and the like. "They can access the network anywhere in the city because the city is blanketed," he says.

According to Reinwand, what's important to businesses, he says, is that the infrastructure is more than just a gigantic coffee-shop hot spot. "Step back one tier and there is a point-to-multipoint network" with routers installed atop light poles all over town, he says. "A tower or roof-mounted radio is pulling signals up from locations around the city. That same network could be used to provide dedicated connections to businesses."

The service, he says, would be equivalent to a T1 connection. "The great advantage is that we can install this and provide this service for 50 to 75 percent less than the company would pay for T1," says Reinwand. He adds that companies trying to arrange T1 service often wind up on long waiting lists for installation, while a wireless link can be acquired in a matter of days. "We think we'll make a dent in the marketplace."

EarthLink plans a wholesale business model for its 135-square-mile Philadelphia installation. The company would provide service at a wholesale rate, and various providers would then sell it on a retail basis. "Any ISP can purchase wholesale access," says Reinwand. "It helps to have other companies putting their marketing muscles and dollars behind the service. In addition, we may be selling to municipal governments and selling bulk access to public utilities."

Large swaths of Wi-Fi service can be found in numerous cities. Among the biggest are San Francisco, with some 35 square miles covered, and the Phoenix area, where a wireless plan covers some 110 suburban square miles. One of the grandest plans outside of Rhode Island is the proposal to spread wireless access across 228 square miles in the Chicago area, which already has been cited by an Ohio State University study as the country's most Internet-accessible city.

It's not just an American trend, either. London, for example, is poised to become a giant wireless Internet hot spot, thanks to the efforts of a provider called The Cloud. The company already has set up private hot spots in coffee shops, hotels, and train stations across the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany.

Access to Wi-Fi connections is an increasingly important selling point for cities, whether or not they plan citywide networks. Intel conducts an annual "Most Unwired Cities" survey that ranks American municipalities on the ease of locating wireless access. Topping the most recent list was the Seattle area - in part because it has so many Starbucks locations with wireless service for customers. San Francisco ranks second, followed by Austin, Tex.; Portland, Ore.; Toledo, Ohio; Atlanta, Ga.; Denver, Colo.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Orange County, Calif.

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