San Jose Wi-Fi net could mark rethinking of 'muni Wi-Fi'

A new downtown Wi-Fi network being built in San Jose, Calif., could indicate a resurgence, based on new approaches, to the ill-fated and brief "muni Wi-Fi" fad of the past decade. The network is scheduled to go live this summer.

The city's goal is not to become a wireless service provider for all residents. Instead, it's replacing an aging, sputtering early muni Wi-Fi network with a modern, high-capacity wireless LAN designed first to support some key municipal infrastructure applications. Then in selected areas, first of all the densely used 1.5-square-mile downtown district, it can offer excess capacity as a free amenity to the growing ranks of iPad and other mobile device users.

BACKGROUND: Network operators get serious about Wi-Fi

San Jose is, literally, capitalizing on an extensive private fiber network that's married to a downtown Internet peer point, where carriers cross-connect. The city gets Internet connectivity at wholesale prices and is planning to swell its Internet pipe from 1Gbps to 20Gbps. This infrastructure is critical to holding down the wireless network's backhaul costs and maximizing the network's capacity.

The Wi-Fi network, using the latest 802.11n outdoor gear from nearby Ruckus Wireless, will consist of about 30 nodes. Many of them will in effect plug into the fiber backbone nodes, via Ethernet. Some of the radio nodes will use Ruckus mesh capability to let two or at most three nodes share one fiber connection. In some cases, the 11n access nodes will work with high-capacity, point-to-point or point-to-multipoint Ruckus wireless bridges where fiber isn't nearby.

In some respects, San Jose is taking a tack similar to mobile carriers, which are looking to Wi-Fi's unlicensed spectrum to create an effective way to shift their mobile data traffic from cell towers to Wi-Fi hot zones, especially in areas with dense user populations and lots of mobile devices. [see "Network operators get serious about Wi-Fi"]

The city is buying Ruckus ZoneFlex 7762 802.11n dual-band outdoor access points and two ZoneDirector 3050 central controllers for its City Hall-based network operations center. The access points are compact, unobtrusive boxes with not visible external antennas. There were some demanding requirements in the request for proposals, among them the ability to stream multi-cast video, according to Veejay Sammeta, the city's acting chief information officer.

Ruckus beat out its usual rivals for the project based on three considerations: superior radio frequency propagation -- based on its innovative built-in, multi-element antenna array, beamforming, and a range of signal and channel management improvements; sustained high bandwidth; and aggressive pricing. The vendor says its Wi-Fi signals can reach two to four times the distance of more conventional Wi-Fi offerings. Beamforming coupled with the unique antenna design can adjust the magnitude and phase of the RF signal dynamically and "focus" it on a specific client device, improving range and throughput.

The city's system integrator, Atlanta-based Wi-Fi veteran Smartwave Technologies, is using the cutting-edge Ruckus gear to replace the city's original network, deployed by now defunct MetroFi, in 2004. That was the height of the muni Wi-Fi craze, which extravagantly promised simple-to-build, minimal-cost, municipalwide, unlicensed wireless broadband, based on 802.11b/g radios, and which notably failed to deliver it.

Not only has the technology changed but also the underlying assumptions about the "business model."

"The biggest problem with muni Wi-Fi was that the business models just didn't make sense," says Al Brown, president and CEO of Smartwave, which has been involved in a range of municipal wireless projects for a decade. Cities demanded 98% Wi-Fi coverage, which, as Brown notes, isn't typically possible even for cellular networks, and required ISPs to offer "free" Wi-Fi "based on advertising-driven models that had never been tested and just weren't sustainable," he says. Finally, "there was a lot of Kool-Aid that was sold, in terms of what Wi-Fi technology could or could not do."

In San Jose, the Wi-Fi network will first of all support and extend to mobile Wi-Fi users the city's parking guidance system, which can feed near real-time information about the location of empty spaces in the network of city-owned parking garages. And it will be used for an expanding population of wireless parking meters. Both generate city revenues, creating a sustainable foundation for the network operations.

And that's the basis also for being able to offer pervasive, high-throughput Wi-Fi connectivity, at no charge, as an end-user amenity in the 1.5-square-mile downtown area. The goal is not for the city to become a network provider to end users. Instead, it creates a network for a battery of municipal applications and then, where it makes sense, opens that capacity to end users.

Sammeta won't say what the target throughput is except that his requirement is that it be better than what Google offers in its Mountain View, Calif.,Wi-Fi network. Google says the maximum rate, up or down, is 1Mbps, but that can be affected by a whole host of variables. Integrator Smartwave is charged with completing the installation and meeting the city's performance targets.

"We want to get the right ratio of fiber nodes to radio nodes, then tune that," Sammeta says.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.A Twitter: Email: john_cox@nww.comBlog RSS feed:

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This story, "San Jose Wi-Fi net could mark rethinking of 'muni Wi-Fi'" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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