Silicon Valley wireless vision taking time

Silicon Valley's municipal wireless project may include eight different technologies and is taking longer than expected to set in motion.

Silicon Valley's municipal wireless project is one of the most ambitious ever attempted, but good things take time -- more than proponents thought, in this case.

Organizers signed a letter of intent with a group of vendors including Cisco Systems and IBM last year to build a 1,500-square-mile network. At the time, the group expected a rollout beginning in January or February of this year.

The fact that not even a pair of test networks is on the ground yet is a testament to the scale and complexity of the plan, according to Seth Fearey, vice president and chief operating officer of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, which is pushing the plan. If the system takes shape as planned, it will let travelers stay connected throughout a trip from San Francisco's southern city limits to Gilroy, south of San Jose. Wi-Fi may be just one of eight technologies used in the project.

The high-tech region is reaching high while municipal wireless is going through a reality check. Last year a vendor dropped out of a project in Sacramento after expressing concern over a free ad-supported economic model, and in April EarthLink scaled back its municipal wireless activity to focus on existing cities and major opportunities. A high-profile plan for nearby San Francisco is embroiled in a political fight because some leaders think it is a bad deal for the city.

The Silicon Valley network would cover more than 40 municipalities across mountains, valleys and urban and suburban areas, with 2.4 million residents. The nonprofit Joint Venture group formed the Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force to spearhead the project, and last September it chose Silicon Valley Metro Connect to build and run it. Along with Cisco as equipment supplier and IBM as system integrator, Metro Connect includes high-tech nonprofit SeaKay and Azulstar. No tax dollars can be spent on the estimated US$100 million project.

Metro Connect envisions a "layer cake" of perhaps eight wireless technologies, according to Fearey. Details are still being worked out, but they may include the following:

- Wi-Fi for central areas of cities

- WiMax mobile broadband at 2.5GHz for less populated areas

- a public-safety network at 4.9GHz

- DSRC (Dedicated Short-Range Communications) for vehicle communications at 5.9GHz

- systems for environmental sensors and machine-to-machine communications

The task force is still negotiating with Metro Connect on a "model agreement" to form the basis of deals with each municipality or agency which is almost finished, Fearey said. Sticking points include details of prices, terms of service, minimum coverage, and privacy, he said.

"It's in their hands as to when we can get this going," Fearey said.

Azulstar has been the lead negotiator for Metro Connect for four to six weeks since it was designated the network owner and operator, according to Noa Eisenberg, Azulstar's vice president of marketing. The parties have made a lot of progress in the past several weeks and Azulstar expects a model agreement to be finished in the very near future, she said.

Initial forecasts of deployment starting in February may have been overly optimistic, said Glenn Loo, chief information officer of Palo Alto, who sits on a committee with other city government representatives working on the project. Palo Alto will host one of the test networks where all the technologies will be tried out.

Meeting the needs of the many entities involved and planning coverage across the region's terrain have been hard, he said. But Loo thinks the Palo Alto test network will be up before the end of July and the main network approved and deployed in some cities by year's end.

One municipal wireless consultant sees more work and delays ahead unless backers change course. They should have tackled the project like a corporate IT department and started with a few key applications to build up momentum before adding other features, said Craig Settles, an independent consultant who has not worked with the Silicon Valley team.

"Someone's got to be willing to say, 'We can achieve the vision, but maybe we should simplify the initial steps,'" Settles said. "You can't sell this much complexity to the average politician."

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Stephen Lawson

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