Wireless program aims to cover all of Silicon Valley

The project's vision involves connecting anyone, anywhere, involving any device

An ambitious plan to equip Silicon Valley with wireless public broadband services is proceeding with great hopes but many challenges.

The Wireless Silicon Valley project was the subject of a presentation at the MuniWireless conference. Expected to cost US$100 million to $150 million, Wireless Silicon Valley involves developing an architecture covering 1,500 square miles. It would be used by around 40 cities in Silicon Valley, each of which has contributed US$2,500 to seed the effort. While there are no officially defined boundaries, Silicon Valley is generally considered to be a span of California cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, including San Jose.

The project's vision involves connecting anyone, anywhere, involving any device, said Seth Fearey, project lead for Wireless Silicon Valley and vice president of Joint Venture, Silicon Valley Network.

"We're going to move beyond the model of laptops connecting the Internet doing e-mail and the Web. We want to connect devices and things," Fearey said.

The network would only function outdoors and provide capabilities ranging from citizen access to the Internet to provision of public services. Users would be able to maintain a connection if they linked up in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, and traveled to Gilroy 71 miles from San Francisco.

Economic development is the top priority of Wireless Silicon Valley, with the idea being to connect small businesses, attract businesses, and make Silicon Valley an exciting place to be.

"People coming here for conventions would spend more money if they knew where to go," such as being able to find movie theaters via wireless access, said Fearey.

"We can use this network to help give them that information," he said.

Benefits of the plan are to make a network that is much more useful and leverages economies of scale, one that deploys multiple technologies together, provides more revenue opportunities, and accommodates government staff.

Challenges, however, include finding an owner/operator and operating on an unproven business model. Also, the network has a high cost to build and the needs of low-revenue areas must be balanced with those of high-revenue areas. The network also takes time to deploy.

"We're breaking new ground here," said Fearey. Investors want to see how the network will work and are struggling to determine how they will make money

The cities participating in the program are quite small, except for San Jose, Fearey said. "This is a big, big challenge," financially, he said.

A request for proposal was issued, resulting in companies such as IBM and Cisco offering to provide equipment and Azulstar to operate the network. These vendors comprise the Metro Connect team that intends to provide the network infrastructure, own and operate it, and sell services. Azulstar, however, was not able to raise money to get the project moving. Now, additional operators are being sought.

The goal with the network is create lots of opportunities for the operator of the network to make money not just from consumer subscriptions and adverting but also from other services such as provision of point-to-point advertising.

A variety of applications has been suggested, ranging from wireless reading of water meters to irrigation control and wireless parking meters that could have fluctuating prices based on the time of day.

During an earlier panel session at the conference Tuesday, Joanne Hovis, president of Columbia Telecommunications, said that if Google acquires the 700-MHz frequencies to be auctioned off by the FCC, that could change the wireless market.

Hovis noted there is much speculation about Google's plans. One audience member speculated Google could open up a wireless network for everybody.

"My personal opinion is I'm not sure Google is serious about bidding on that spectrum," Hovis said. It also would be a few years before Google could build its network, Hovis said.

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Paul Krill

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