The two vendors involved in Bresnan Communication‘s Wi-Fi trial in Billings, MT, think the cable industry is well positioned to become a player as the sector evolves away from its traditional orientation toward municipalities.

It wasn’t a good summer for the municipal Wi-Fi sector, as projects in Houston, Chicago and San Francisco ground to halts. The idea of offering basic services for free and generating revenue from premium services and advertising simply hasn’t worked out so well.

Strictly speaking, the Bresnan initiative is private and not muni Wi-Fi. In the big picture, however, private cable and muni Wi-Fi initiatives overlap. How cable projects evolve will both influence and be influenced by the posture of municipalities grappling with technical innovation, new and presumably more realistic business models and shifting regulatory requirements. Beyond Billings Though not too much information is available from Bresnan, it is clear that the operator isn’t relying on the discredited business assumptions. The service will be offered free to the operators’ high-speed data subscribers. Others may eventually be charged a small fee to others. Other details, such as how many of BelAir Network‘s S100 strand-mounted access points may be needed if this trial moves into a broader launch, are skimpy.

Jim Orr, the principal network architect for Fujitsu, which is handling the design, management and monitoring of the project, says that a relatively small number of wireless access points are being used due to the nature of the BelAir gear. The vendor "has a lot of good architectural tricks in terms of RF power" and other strategies aimed at cutting down the required number of devices.

The question is whether the Billings project is an exception or if the industry is showing signs of getting behind municipal wireless. Cable, insiders say, has significant advantages that can be brought to bear on municipal projects. See this article in the current issue of CT for one such brief.

For one thing, operators can roll out a number of different wireless services that rely on similar technology. In addition to municipal services, the same basic technology can be used in lieu of wired plant extensions to serve commercial areas such as business parks, seasonal facilities such as colleges and resorts, to backhaul cellular traffic and for traditional hotspots.

Despite this, the industry has largely, though not completely, stayed on the sidelines on municipal projects. Helpful Failures BelAir’s position is that it is a good thing that the discredited muni Wi-Fi business model failed and that a stronger sector will take its place. "What the industry is going through frankly we think is healthy and very necessary," says Jim Freeze, the senior vice president of marketing and alliances for BelAir.

The emerging model, Freeze and others say, will be based on economic development and offering services to municipal entities such as first responders. Indeed, the efficacy of such an approach was unexpectedly—and tragically—validated when BelAir client US Internet fired up an unfinished network after the Minneapolis bridge collapse on August 1. Freeze says that the network provided IP video of the scene, and other reports say that it took pressure off the overburdened cellular network.

Freeze’s comments may be more than a vendor trying to spin bad news. Craig Settles, a municipal Wi-Fi consultant and author of the book Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, sees wireless services as a natural for cable both as a revenue-generator and as a defensive measure against wireless and telco bundles.

Settles suspects the industry may be largely waiting out the poor business models created by municipalities. Last sprint, Buckeye CableSystem‘s response to a request for proposals to build a network in Toledo, Ohio was a letter to city officials saying that it would be interested if a well thought out business model was implemented.

The letter from Buckeye says that it is “essential that the parties come to an understanding about the financial structure of the project as well as other critical operational objectives before investing significant time and resources in the design of such a complex network.”

The February 20 letter suggests a three-part plan that was heavy on research community needs and assets. Buckeye backs a regional approach covering the Toledo metropolitan area, which includes Lucas and Wood counties in Ohio and the south part of Monroe County, MI. The plan is stalled but conversations are continuing, says Tom Dawson, the company’s director of governmental affairs. The matter is still being discussed by the company and the city, says CTO Joe Jensen.

Settles notes that the industry’s previous antipathy to such networks—such as Comcast‘s opposition to Philadelphia’s network—has become more muted, a sign that industry thinking may be changing.

Experts generally agree that the cable industry has inherent advantages, such as pole attachment rights, network infrastructure and substantial back office and marketing assets and acumen. Pole attachment rights are perhaps the biggest reason that the industry has an advantage over possible competitors. It’s difficult for competitors to make a go of it without such rights, Orr says. Indeed, he says  "other problems pale in comparison to this."

The other advantage is technical. Municipal Wi-Fi networks can be provisioned and managed using DOCSIS 2.0 specs. This is how the BelAir gear works in Billings. The result is that the APs represent just another element in the cable network and not an add-on that demands different treatment. In addition, Freeze says, the S100 family used in the Bresnan project is line-mountable and network powered. Both of these elements, he says, were designed with cable in mind.

—Carl Weinschenk

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