San Jose: Municipal Wi-Fi Comes Alive (Again)

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The city of San Jose is planning a new, free WiFi network, just a few years after such networks were declared all but dead, reports Network World.

San Jose’s new municipal wireless network will replace the city’s MetroFi network, built in 2004, and similar to one MetroFi partially built for Portland, before the company crashed and burned.

Ruckus Wireless and its integration partner SmartWave Technologies, has been selected by the City of San José to supply advanced Wi-Fi products and services for the public Wi-Fi network initiative. The new outdoor Wi-Fi network, initially being deployed in dozens of downtown locations, will cover San José’s business district, allowing the city to offer free high-speed Wi-Fi services. The new high-speed network will be capable of supporting tens of thousands of simultaneous users and hundreds of terabytes of aggregate traffic.

San Jose, a city of about 1 million, intends to offer high-speed Wi-Fi throughout its downtown, covering an area of 1.5 square miles by the middle of this year. But unlike earlier municipal Wi-Fi initiatives, the San Jose system will be able to pay for itself entirely by helping the government do its job.

The network will support a myriad of new applications such as high-definition video, parking meters and digital parking guidance signs, video surveillance, and traffic signaling. The network will also play a key role in offloading mobile data traffic from congested cellular networks and will be used to backhaul data traffic to the Internet.

In the middle of the past decade, ambitious projects in several cities, including San Jose and Portland, promised to blanket outdoor areas with Wi-Fi and provide built-in sources of revenue. Browser-based advertising or small-business use would help to pay for equipment and operations. But the vision of Wi-Fi enabled cities didn’t happen.

The cost for reliable coverage rose from $65K-$100K per square mile, as free WiFi became increasingly popular in coffee shops, taverns and homes. The increased noise floor also reduced the range and effectiveness of municipal wireless. Soon, commercial 4G providers such as Clearwire and cellular carriers delivered more reliable service, indoors and out, sealing its fate.

Ruckus says their new 7762-AC, in addition to public access services, is well suited for small cell wireless backhaul and mobile data offload, and is designed to be co-located with small cell base stations to minimize expensive site acquisition. The Ruckus Room has an inside look at the company’s recent developments.

San Jose’s new plan is fairly simple. The network will cost about US$94,000 to buy and set up, and then about $22,000 per year to run and maintain, acting CIO Vijay Sammeta said. Benefits to the city will include better connections for city employees and for satellite fire station offices. It will also provide better connectivity for wireless parking meters, and for signs that guide drivers to parking garages using real-time information on the number of spaces available, Sammeta said.

The public-facing part of the network will be open and unsecured, so users won’t have to sign in or provide a password. The city won’t estimate how fast the system will be until it’s installed and tested, but Sammeta said users should be able to share a total of 1Gbps (bits per second) or more. One-quarter to one-third of the access points will be directly linked to the city’s wired network via fiber connections, while others will be tethered via Wi-Fi mesh.

The IEEE 802.11n network from Ruckus Wireless is designed for outdoor public use, with multiple antennas and beam-forming mechanisms to get around obstacles. It will be implemented by system integrator SmartWave Technologies.

Deals with mobile operators to offload traffic from their commercial cellular networks is a possibility, but the plan doesn’t rely on making those deals.

Ruckus Wireless successfully supplied Seoul, South Korea, with what is said to be the world’s fastest municipal 802.11n network and announced that its Smart Wi-Fi products is being deployed by leading colleges and universities throughout China. Guangxi Unicom, a unit of China Unicom, is using a wide range of Smart Wi-Fi products and technologies to deliver public broadband access across eight universities and colleges in Guangxi province.

Big City municipal Wi-Fi projects in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland and New Orleans all hit the skids when the limitations of WiFi became apparent.

It became clear by late 2007 municipal Wi-Fi was (mostly) a bust. Systems required 40 nodes per sq mile rather than 25 or so, which drastically raised the cost. Poor indoor penetration often necessitated a $150 WiFi repeater in the home. Meanwhile, the newly minted Mobile WiMAX systems, such as Clearwire only required 10 to 15 towers to cover 100 square miles, versus some 40 WiFi access points per square mile.

Do the math. Wimax/LTE is a cheaper solution for covering cities. Of course the big advantage of WiFi is it’s unlicensed. It’s cheap enough to be offered “free” at coffee shops. Smartphones and tablets, the biggest users of wireless data, can use WiFi connections directly.

Now, cellular carriers are getting overwhelmed by bandwidth demand. They are beginning to integrate WiFi into their commercial services. A municipally owned facility may well provide a common carrier solution. City-managed wireless infrastructure may provide advantages for carriers and end users.

A lot has happened in the 5 years since municipal WiFi went bust, including the ubiquity of WiFi-enabled smartphones and tablets, as well as MIMO and beam-forming infrastructure that may increase effective range and reduce the effects of interference. Maybe municipal WiFi was just ahead of its time.

Related Dailywireless articles include; Carrier WiFi Moves Ahead, Municipal Broadband: Here We Go Again, AT&T Can’t Give Away Their Muni WiFi Net, Top Ten Municipal WiFi Stories of the Decade.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 at 12:09 pm .

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