RealTime IT News

Madison Steps Forward on Wi-Fi

The papers are signed: Cellnet Technology of Atlanta and Wireless Facilities, Inc. (WFI) of San Diego will partner to install a citywide Wi-Fi network in Madison, Wisconsin, extending to the county airport.

It hasn't been easy for the city (pop. 218,000, with 425,000 in all of Dane County in the 2000 census) to get to this point, almost a year after issuing a request for proposal (RFP). The state was one of a few last year that passed a law restricting municipalities from getting into the telecommunications services business. However, there are loopholes: cities that don't have any commercially available broadband can install their own, and cities that won't offer the service directly to end users can install it.

The latter is how Madison set things up: the network will be owned and operated by Cellnet, a private company. WFI will handle the design and deployment.

At this time, neither company is saying what equipment they'll use or what it will cost them, as no taxpayer money will be used, either. However, the schedule is to install in downtown first and have it ready by March of 2006, moving out from there.

Shortly after the RFP deadline, the city signed on with a set of vendors that was one of three groups to bid on the "Wireless Wisconsin" contract: America Online and local provider SkyCable. However, in August, AOL abruptly pulled out of the deal; a corporate decision was made not only not to go forward with the Madison installation, but also not to get into Wi-Fi at all. Then, earlier this month, SkyCable went belly up. By then, WFI was already on board. WFI, in turn, brought in Cellnet, a company best known for using 900MHz spectrum to do wireless meter reading.

Cellnet is also a partner with Pronto Networks on its new UniFi Digital Communities Grid project to bring roaming and other services to municipal workers traveling from city to city. Pronto is primarily known for operations support systems (OSS), but Cellnet CIO Louis Kek says that Madison's OSS, like the hardware to be used, has yet to be determined.

The city of Madison wants the Wi-Fi network for economic reasons, "including reduced costs, new revenue opportunities, economic development, and enhanced service capabilities," according to the RFP, part of a "Healthy City" initiative from Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. "This is an important new service for Madison residents and businesses," Cieslewicz says.

While the Wi-Fi deployment plans sound very similar to what is proposed for the much talked about Wireless Philadelphia plan between that city and provider EarthLink, Kek points out one key difference: "We [Cellnet/WFI] will not be an ISP," he says. "We will invite local ISPs and others to participate. This will allow for a healthy, competitive market."

EarthLink's move to bid on major municipal wireless network deployments is looked at by many as a last-ditch effort for the company as its dial-up subscribers continue to go broadband. The company's broadband prospects don't look good either, after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brand X case stated that cable companies do not have to share their high-speed lines with ISPs.

WFI is also partnered with Google on its submission to the request for information to San Francisco, another city looking to install a large-scale Wi-Fi network.