RealTime IT News

Roam From Town to Town

More and more, it appears that those against municipal-run wireless networks have far less to complain about, especially when big cities like Philadelphia are going with providers like EarthLink that will pay for the network deployment out of pocket rather than rely on tax money. At least, maybe that's how it'll all work out.

Even so, what's a citywide network like that good for in the long run besides Internet access?

Pronto Networks, usually considered a provider of operations support systems (OSS) for public access hotspots, says its new initiative goes  beyond the arguments on the political and legislative debates, and even passes the technical infrastructure questions, to focus on applications and business models. It has launched the UniFi Digital Communities Grid as a "nationwide municipal broadband network" which will provide an application platform for use by city workers — and let them get access to services even as they travel from city to city on the grid. For free. Even though, in the long run, it's about making money.

"This is about more than talking; it's about doing something and seeing results," says Lee Tsao, worldwide solutions director for Pronto. "We want to catalyze [cities] into expanding networks and running more services on them, getting more revenue."

That revenue won't be just for the city or just for Pronto, but also for partner companies that can provide services over a wireless network. The obvious partners are virtual network operators (VNOs) that would offer access on the network to customers. However, Pronto is also lining up services partners for doing everything from meter reading to computer-aided dispatch for first responders, video on demand, and even wireless parking meter management.

UniFi can send alerts out over a wireless network and beyond to cell phones, and can even be set up to make phone calls to specific residences. Tsao equates it to an electronic version of the Amber Alert system, but with multimedia services.

The grid can even be put to use by municipalities that don't have a town or citywide network yet. Pronto will provide such communities with 200mW 802.11 hardware controllers supporting the UniFi grid. The equipment can, at the very least, create a small hotzone covering, for example, a city hall or library.

To get the project rolling, Pronto is investing $15 million in products and services. It has signed on various municipalities including Corpus Christi, Texas; Daytona Beach, Florida; Marietta, Ohio; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Fire Island, New York, as well as all 37 municipalities in Camden County in New Jersey, plus the Central California Broadband project to unwire that area. The goal: 500 communities on the grid by early 2007.

"It took no time to sign up the first ten digital cities," Tsao says of lining up initial grid members. He believes there's no downside, since Pronto is handling everything on the back-end and is even helping provide wireless to those without it.

"We can bring more to the table than Philadelphia and San Francisco," Tsao claims, "as those networks are mostly just about Internet access." Even in cities where the municipality doesn't own or control the network, such as Nantucket, the city or town can benefit if the city has access.

As for roaming from city to city on the UniFi grid, that would be limited to the city workers, as Pronto will support this for free. Regular end-user consumers aren't addressed by this system—those are the kinds of customers Pronto would still like to make money from as they roam with service providers that become Pronto customers.

Initial announced UniFi ecosystem technology partners include Cellnet (meter reading), Cross Current (dispatching), Lexis Systems (parking) Novax (traffic signal control) and SmartVideo (video on demand services).