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Oakland Opening Door For Google To Control WiFi -- I'll Bet That's What Happens

Google's started this with their free network in New York. Now they want to wire San Francisco, and I'll bet we're in the loop too. But this story will not reveal that.

Municipal wireless networks latest rage
By Barbara Grady, Business Writer - Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND officials are thinking of joining the WiFi age and deploying a municipal wireless network to give their citizens and workers free Internet access.

WiFi networks allow people to access the Internet from various "hot spots" around a city from laptops or handheld wireless devices without plugging into a jack or needing a specific Internet service account. Commercial WiFi hot spots exist in hotels and coffee shops in most cities, including Oakland.

But free municipal WiFi networks, which are under planning in major cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia, are designed to give broad Internet access coverage from outdoor and indoor locations across a city.

Only a handful of smaller cities have WiFi networks up and running — such as in Cupertino, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale in the Bay Area; and Tempe, Ariz., and St. Cloud, Fla., elsewhere. No major cities have them yet.

In Philadelphia and San Francisco, the plans are based on a desire to bring more citizens into the digital age and help city departments with mobile workers such as police, fire, public works and recreation workers. San Francisco also hopes to extend its sparkle as a technology leader.

In Oakland, an informal group of city officials, tech-savvy citizens, school officials, librarians and business people have been meeting regularly for several months to figure out how to move Oakland to a WiFi future.

"We are in the very early stages," said Bob Glaze, Oakland's chief technology officer, who heads this group. "We've gone out and taken a look at what other cities have done, at other initiatives out there," he said.

A major step was reached in July when the group persuaded a committee of the Oakland City Council to fund a "needs assessment" study and find a consultant to help Oakland determine what kind — as in size and architecture — of WiFi network it needs.

Technically, WiFi networks are wireless local area networks or LANS created by installing wireless digital signal access nodes on high buildings to receive and transmit signals to devices, much the way cellular towers transmit signals for cell phones. WiFi nodes are spaced farther apart than cellular nodes and presumably have greater capacity, so they're cheaper to deploy. Also, WiFi is a digital connection, using the 802.11 standard, and thus is geared to Internet access and use of the Internet for transmission.

Still, because WiFi is so new, there are varying technologies for a city to choose from such as Wireless Mesh or WiMAX, two variations of WiFi that differ in the area covered and in reliability.

These wireless Internet access technologies could bring what landline technologies of digital subscriber lines and cable modems now bring to customers who pay for them. Part of the incentive for municipal WiFi is to "bridge the digital divide" that keeps people who can't afford $30 or so a month for Internet access from a phone or cable company from having high-speed Internet access.

Based on the planning done by Philadelphia, one of the first large U.S. cities to plan a WiFi network, a WiFi network can be deployed for about $50,000 per square mile and could be provided to that entire city for $7 million to $10 million.

Cities that have begun planning WiFi networks have devised ways to pay for them. The San Francisco and Philadelphia plans involve a mix of free and subscription services, starting with basic free Internet access for all and then
WIFIIBusiness 2offering a higher speed service for those who want to pay. The paying service would be the revenue needed to build and maintain the network.

EarthLink Inc., of Atlanta, is the vendor supplying many of the WiFi networks under development, including one just finished in Anaheim and the ones planned in Philadelphia and Milpitas. EarthLink also won the bid with partner Google Inc. of Mountain View to build San Francisco's network. Another network provider, MetroFi Inc. of Mountain View, is supplying networks to Cupertino, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale.

A group called the Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force has received seven bids to build and operate a giant WiFi network across many towns, stretching from San Mateo south to Santa Cruz and east to Fremont.

The Berkeley City Council is considering whether to build a WiFi network and Boston is considering putting a nonprofit corporation in charge of building and operating a citywide WiFi system.

Oakland's ad hoc committee, which Glaze heads, includes entrepreneur Anietie Ekanem, who has built a WiFi network in West Oakland that provides inexpensive wireless Internet access and is deploying WiFi networks in Africa. Ekanem is providing the committee with the technical know-how his company, Wireless Africa Inc., has developed in building networks.

The Oakland committee group also includes people from the chamber of commerce who have been talking with local businesses to get a sense of their needs. Businesses, schools, libraries, universities and neighborhood nonprofits will be surveyed about how they might use a wireless network and if they'd be willing to support it financially — that is through advertising or subscriptions.

"They'll do a stakeholder analysis," said Scott Peterson, director of public policy at the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "We'd like this to be something that addresses all the different parts of the community, residents, businesses, students, city services."

Oakland already knows it wants its network to bring Internet access to poorer neighborhoods, Glaze said. "Some neighborhoods have no DSL and no wireless" access because commercial providers have not made it available.
If "needs assessment" sounds like government bureaucracy in process, it's actually said to be a very important step in the WiFi business.

That's because WiFi networks are a new phenomenon — only a few suburban networks are already up and running across the country, though hundreds are in the planning/building stages. Consequently, there's little history to say which WiFi business model and architectural plan works best.

"We're learning vicariously from San Francisco, which found out pretty quickly you just don't start shooting out radio waves and everybody is connected," Peterson said. San Francisco received six bids from network vendors willing to build and operate WiFi and in April it chose a joint bid from Google and EarthLink, which plan to deploy a network that will be free to all, with a faster service option for those who want to pay. Terms of this contract are still being negotiated with San Francisco city officials.

Most cities have grappled with the question of how to financially support a WiFi network. Some cities, such as Anaheim and St. Cloud, Fla., are not offering a free network, just one that is cheaper to access than commercial wireline varieties. Another model proposed in some cities — and which Google first proposed for San Francisco — is free access for everyone that would be supported by advertising that shows up on screens when users access the Internet.

Then there are questions of how big a network should be.

"You really need to tailor this to your own city. That is why you have to get the needs assessment in first," Glaze said.
Craig Settles, an Oakland resident who runs a national consulting service on WiFi and who has written a book about it, said the lesson in WiFi plans to date as it sweeps the country is that one size — or plan — does not fit all.

"The first driver of needs depends on the city," Settles said. "If you take some other city's model or some other city's RFP and drop it in, that won't work," he continued. RFP refers to request for proposals with specifications of what gear and capacity is wanted.

In Philadelphia and San Francisco, the stated goal of the WiFi network is to bring all citizens into the digital age, since some cannot afford commercial connections to the Internet, and to improve city services that depend on mobility, like public works and emergency services.

In Anaheim, by contrast, the driver was to improve tourism, the city's main industry. Anaheim is the home of Disneyland.
Glaze said Oakland also envisions medical uses and school information dissemination as key uses in Oakland.

To determine if a WiFi network would really be useful in these situations, the committee decided it will solicit proposals for pilot projects from schools and nonprofits on using a free municipal wireless network to improve some function.

With all this studying going on, when might Oakland actually see a municipal WiFi network?

"My optimistic estimate is the that by the end of 2007 we'll see active stuff out there — a vendor out there installing it," Glaze said. "If we can truly do a good assessment and be clear on what the needs are, this is doable."

Business Writer Barbara Grady can be reached at (510) 208-6427 or bgrady@angnewspapers.com.
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