Area Development
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.

Plenty of Need for Wires
As hot as wireless is these days, the technology is clearly not for everyone, at least not in its present stage of development. Marin notes that contact centers increasingly use wireless connectivity within their facilities, but "the phone systems will still be wired to a broadband connection, and those are typically connected to fiber. The reps at the desk can have wireless connections to their VoIP communications."

The same is true at countless factories and distribution centers. More and more facilities are equipped internally with Wi-Fi and RFID technologies to allow efficient in-plant communications and tracking of inventory, yet these high-end facilities still choose hard wires for linking to the outside world. Tampa-based E Solutions Corp. is a hosting and application-development firm with plenty of experience searching for well-connected sites, and CEO Richard Nicholas reports that wireless is simply not ready for his kind of corporate use, due to the downtime that can happen when signals are blocked by weather or other circumstances.

Ken Shaw, executive vice president of Safe Offsite, a computer data-security firm, agrees. "With the creation of Wi-Fi and now WiMax, it stands to reason that many companies would consider wireless options and at face value they appear to be the solution, but as with any newer technology, it is not without a fair share of pros and cons," he says. "Take, for example, the simple issue of the structure of a wireless network. In newer construction, bouncing a signal across an entire factory floor may not be of issue. But in more established, older neighborhoods, the buildings were built to stand the test of time, and put wireless technology to the test."

For those who need hard wires, decent sites may be more commonplace than ever, yet affordability of service can still be an issue. E Solutions was close to signing a lease for a data center when it discovered that it would not be possible to obtain adequate Internet connectivity without incurring major costs. Nicholas sees two primary considerations regarding connectivity and site selection. First, if connectivity is handled internally, can the company get the access it needs at a cost it can afford to pay? Second, if outsourcing is the better option, which it often is, are there enough providers in the area who have the infrastructure and personnel required to do the job?

Other infrastructure-related issues also limit the appropriate sites for some types of developments. Redundancy is one such consideration. Heavy users of communications technology, such as contact centers, simply cannot afford even the shortest service outage, so they're on the lookout for locations where the communication link is built to bypass trouble. As Marin notes, many sites have fiber, "but you don't always have a SONET ring," a circular network designed to withstand a service break on one side by rerouting calls or data around the other side.

For some companies, extended downtime can spell fiscal ruin, even bankruptcy, according to Gartner Group research focusing on business continuity management. A University of Minnesota study found much the same thing, and experts with corporate consultant Frost & Sullivan find that an increasing number of companies list disaster recovery as a primary concern when they're planning such things as contact centers and speech-interactive voice response operations. Such concerns lead some to consider not only redundant data connections but even establishing redundant facilities in multiple locations. Outsourced IVR provider Message Technologies, Inc. is one such company. The company operates from Atlanta, but created a Dallas facility to provide redundancy. In the event of some kind of disaster in Atlanta, call traffic can be automatically shunted to Dallas.

Infrastructure aspects can vary dramatically from one site to another, even if all sites have high-speed links. It's worth considering a site's ability to keep up with the times, according to Shaw. "The development of connectivity when choosing a site calls for a network that is relatively stable in order to provide a consistent environment to which developers and in turn the entire company can build, and one that is also leading-edge in order to incorporate new technologies as soon as they are available," he says. "Development and testing of the new network technologies requires a more flexible network, one that can be modified and tested frequently." Marin also notes that it's not just about speed: "Communications bandwidth is always important. It's more important on the data center side, and it sometimes keeps you from going to smaller communities in North America."

But the general rule that bandwidth is greater in bigger cities does have its exceptions. In the timber-rich region of Grays Harbor, Wash., a failed nuclear power project has blossomed into a extraordinarily well-wired business location called the Satsop Development Park. Changes in the electrical market kept the Satsop nuclear power plant from being fueled, but the property was left with the amazing infrastructure that such a plant requires. Satsop has enough fiber links and network support equipment to deliver up to 4,000 high-speed data connections and 20,000 voice lines. It has direct power connections and an onsite substation, vast water resources, an onsite wastewater-treatment plant, and some 440 acres of cleared and graded land. The site also has a pair of distinctive visual features: two cooling towers built for the power plant.

A technology that's starting to bring broadband to more places is called BPL, short for broadband over power lines. It's not exactly new technology, but it is becoming increasingly affordable, and American electric utilities are starting to add the power of data connections to their electrical grids. One of the leading players is Current Communications Group of Maryland, which last year drew the attention of big-time investors that included web powerhouse Google. Current is a partner with Cincinnati-based energy provider Cinergy in the nation's largest BPL program, which provides power-line Internet links to more than 50,000 users in the Cincinnati area.

BPL has some significant ease-of-use benefits, one of which is the fact that wires are already in place virtually everywhere, not just to businesses and homes but also all over the interior of structures. In theory, it's possible to hook into the network wherever there's a wall outlet. The technology provides more than just an added revenue stream for power companies. It also modernizes the power grid in significant ways, allowing for fully remote meter reading and much more effective network monitoring and management.

It's clear that, just as the appetite for broadband continues to grow among users, the ways of delivering it will continue to evolve. Fiber may be all over the place now, thanks to the telecom boom of the 1990s, but Marin says "that capacity will get eaten up as more and more consumers use fiber in their homes."

On the other hand, more and more of those home-based consumers may shun wires entirely, as Rhode Island visionaries such as Withers imagine. "I think we've only begun to understand how people can apply wireless technology," she says. "At the Business Innovation Factory, we're focused almost exclusively on enabling collaborative innovation and helping organizations - both public and private - become more adept at networking people, resources, and ideas across traditional boundaries. Obviously, a border-to-border network will be a vital tool in making this possible."