Silicon Valley would get mixed wireless network

A planned Silicon Valley wireless network would have a range of technologies and services

The municipal wireless system planned for Silicon Valley and surrounding areas will use a wider array of technologies than most such projects and offer several levels of free and paid service, according to officials crafting the plan.

The network, designed to cover about 1,500 square miles and 2.4 million residents, has strong support in the region and is on schedule for deployment starting this year, backers said Friday at the Wireless Communications Association Symposium in San Jose, California.

Though city and county elected officials haven't yet started debating the plan, trying to get the high-tech mecca covered with Wi-Fi and other wireless Internet access so far looks easier than EarthLink and Google's uphill battle in nearby San Francisco. That's because organizers have kept their eye on a viable business model, according to Seth Fearey, vice president and chief operating officer of Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, a regional group backing the project.

"What I think has happened in a number of municipalities around the country is they have gotten diverted into social goals," Fearey said. How municipal Wi-Fi would get lower income residents on the 'Net has been a major issue in San Francisco and other cities.

The Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force last September chose Silicon Valley Metro Connect, a joint venture of big IT vendors and a nonprofit organization, to build and run the network. Metro Connect brings together heavy hitters Cisco Systems and IBM along with wireless service provider Azulstar Networks and SeaKay, a nonprofit company. The Metro Connect partners are still working out the exact business model, but some preliminary details came out during panel discussions on Friday.

As envisioned now, users would be able to choose among five or six services, including free Internet access at 1M bps (bits per second) downstream, paid 1M bps access with a high level of tech support, service with the same speed both downstream and upstream, a gaming service, and filtered services for children.

Metro Connect would use different networks to serve the region, which includes urban, suburban and rural areas. Urban users could log on to Wi-Fi networks, while those in less dense areas may get WiMax, an emerging technology with a longer range. For city employees and public safety agencies, another network may be included.

Task force members are confident the plan will sail to approval, though the model contract being worked out now would need approval by 40 individual cities, counties and other entities to fill the planned coverage area. No tax dollars can be spent on the project, estimated to cost US$100 million for hardware, software and services, but a portion of revenue will need to come from governments that pay to use the network for their own operations.

"We know they're going to come. It's just the challenge of building it," said Liz Kniss, a Santa Clara County supervisor involved in the project.

Craig Settles, an independent municipal network consultant, said the network's backers had better have asked cities and residents a lot of questions about what they wanted out of the network.

"When you bring in 40 different cities, trying to find a series of consensus points that all these cities can agree on, that requires a hefty amount of legwork beforehand," Settles said.

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