While most municipalities use humongous amounts of salt in the winter, the smart ones are saving a few grains to take as they read a Nortel-Intel-sponsored report (a ‘tel’ tale?) – "Muni Wireless Mobile Applications: A View From the Field" – that suggests cable operators should be cultivated as network partners.

The report obviously serves the purposes of two vendors with vested interests in wireless technology, but it’s no snow job, insisted the report’s author Craig Settles, president of Successful.com, who said his research showed an enterprising cable system operator would benefit by partnering with a local municipality. The towns are going to help building out, operating and maximizing the use of a wireless network, so it just makes sense, he said, for the local cable operator to link up with them on a play that can also extend the cable plant.

"If you tie into the city’s network or you create the city’s network, you basically give your consumers a wireless extension to their cable service," said Settles, who admits there’s no readily apparent business case for cable to extend services into areas where there’s no money, even though those are the places municipalities are targeting. Still, he said, cable’s plant comes close enough to these areas to make a partnership work. Helping the city "As cable gets to where it has to be located, it can help the city to build out this network into underserved parts of the community because it can reach those cheaper with the (wireless) mesh network than with cable infrastructure," Settles said. "Whether that happens or not, the potential is there."

More likely, he said, the city would build out to the wireless play for underserved areas then ask the cable operator to partner and run the operation and link it into the greater overall cable network so "the city doesn’t have to manage the service, but can still dictate where it goes, and everybody can achieve their goals that way."

The teaser attraction is wireless mobility whether on a Wi-Fi mesh or WiMAX, both of which provide greater bandwidth and reliability than a traditional mobile network, and something which cable, for now at least, is missing.

"If you look at this as an IP network that facilitates mobility, the voice part will become a part of that even though the city won’t run it," he said. "It will just be an application that runs on top of it. In an ideal situation, it is mobile so that the people moving wherever they happen to be can use the service." Hooking the big fish That, he figures, might be the hook that drags cable operators into a game that’s going to happen whether they join up or not.

"Either the city or the incumbents (telcos) or the cable company or somebody is facilitating an IP infrastructure buildout," he said. "If I had my druthers, of all the people who stood against muni wireless, the one that I would pick to have coming over to my side would be the cable companies."

Not the phone companies? AT&T is touting its willingness to partner with municipalities on wireless networks, and Sprint is making more noise with its WiMAX effort than the joint venture in which it’s ostensibly involved with some very silent cable partners.

"The biggest danger you can get into from any municipality’s perspective is if they (telcos) get in and behave as they’ve always behaved, you haven’t addressed the issue that motivated the pursuit of these networks in the first place," Settles said. "People are doing these networks because … they have some very specific needs that the incumbents weren’t going to address or couldn’t address cheaply enough."

So cable wins by default – which, come to think of it, is how cable got a lion’s share of the high-speed data market.

"Call me cynical, but I neither trust nor like the telecom companies, and I don’t think their playing in this space is going to be in the best interest of the space," he said. Can’t go it alone Regulatory and financial obstacles block cities from going it alone, but there’s just too much good that can be accomplished with a city-wide wireless network to abandon the idea altogether.

"At many levels they’re going to need partners," he said. "If they’re looking at mobilizing the government work force, they need application partners; if they’re looking at doing anything with digital inclusion that will help serve the community … partnerships are going to be critical. That’s a blunt reality; you have to address that."

If that means collaborating with what was formerly – and could still be – the enemy, then munis should choose the least offensive enemy. For Settles, that means working with cable – if cable’s willing to work back.

"The more conservative political environments are banking on the public-private partnerships and … partnering with a voice company, a video company and all the rest of those things," he said. – Jim Barthold

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