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Wi-Fi Network to Spur Countywide Economic Benefits

Jim Freeze is Senior Vice President, Marketing and Alliances, BelAir Networks. At the W2i Digital Cities Convention in Philadelphia (Dec. 5–6, 2006), Freeze gave a keynote address and spoke with W2i about Washtenaw County (MI), Minneapolis, and Galt (CA), among other BelAir implementation communities, as well as the 2007 municipal wireless market and sustainable service-provider business models.

Q: In light of BelAir’s successes in several municipalities, how do you view the market in 2007?

We think the opportunity is huge. If you look at some of the market implications that have existed for ’05 and ’06, I think the inclination was correct — there was a huge opportunity. But as is always the case, the actual implementations take much longer to get started, but once they do, they really take off.

We happen to believe at BelAir that 2007 is the year where significant deployments really start to happen. That’s based on what we see as opportunities before us, based on our current pipeline, and based on large cities that we’re involved in right now, as well as some smaller ones.

Q: Which are these exactly?

A: Certainly we’re involved right now in our deployment in the City of London. At this conference, there have been a number of folks who have spoken from Washtenaw County, Michigan — 700 square miles that will be up and running with Wi-Fi at the end of next year. That’s pretty impressive. The City of Ann Arbor is in the county, but it’s a rural area, so it’s not just big cities.

It’s interesting to hear Washtenaw County — a county of 400,000 people — talking about the importance of its network to economic development. There is a digital-divide issue, but we increasingly believe that cities will start to look at this ubiquitous network as a tool and a platform for economic development and innovation. And the absence of it will be a real competitive disadvantage for cities, which is really going to spur a lot of cities to move.

Over the course of the next six months, there will be some very successful city deployments. We’re seeing a lot of success in Toronto — the fifth-largest city in North America — and we’ll start to make significant progress in Minneapolis. And we believe that that will create momentum for other cities, who no longer are going to do it because they think there’s a great opportunity — yes, that’s true — but I think there will be a fear of being left behind.

Q: Minneapolis is being viewed as a model public-private partnership between the city and the service provider.

What we saw happen in Minneapolis is what we believe will happen in a lot, if not the majority, of deployments over the course of the next two to three years — that is, the city issuing an RFP and helping by providing access to poles, street furniture and buildings, while at the same time demonstrating their commitment to this network by becoming a customer of the network. We think that’s really important. It certainly helps the business case, and it’s a strong statement about the importance of this network to the local community. We applaud Minneapolis for their leadership and, we think, setting the tone for other large as well as small cities.

Q: How do you see the service-provider landscape generally?

Service providers of all kinds and all sizes are getting into this. We’ve certainly seen some of the large phone companies start to express interest in this space. Some of them have fought it as well, but I think that’s probably a losing battle. We see interest among cable companies for a whole host of applications, and we see smaller regional ISPs in many cases who have seen their legacy dial-up business going away, and who are looking for alternative ways to make money by providing a different kind of Internet access.

It’s very capital intensive to do land-line services like DSL or cable, but small ISPs can compete by using metro Wi-Fi. A great example of that is a customer of ours in Galt, California. Two years ago they saw their dial-up business dying and they needed to replace it. They knew they needed to move to broadband, but they certainly weren’t going to go out and invest the tens of millions of dollars involved in buying DSL equipment and trying to compete with the local incumbent provider. So they created a wireless mesh, and within one year they had enough subscribers that they were cash-flow positive. That business is growing. Now the city is a customer of this private network.

Q: What about local enterprises and institutions?

You can look at what’s going on at Dolphins Stadium in Miami. It’s a large metropolitan-area deployment — 2 million square feet — that’s being used for real applications. It’s gotten a significant amount of press for the innovative use of real applications, so it’s not just Web surfing. It’s not just a [sports] reporter sending a story, in real time — those are important applications — but we’re talking about point-of-sale applications, the ability to have kiosks on wheels that can be moved around the stadium with a wireless point-of-sale system. That’s pretty critical to Dolphin Stadium — if they can’t validate debit of credit cards. They’re also in the process of testing some video surveillance and voice applications, all running across that infrastructure. So when you see that working in a venue like Dolphin Stadium, and you’re a political or business leader in the City of Miami, I think you have to ask, why can’t we do that for the entire city? And so we do believe smaller enterprise deployments will really serve as a kick-start to cities that haven’t really started the process.



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