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December 26, 2006 > Look, Ma; no wires ... or cables!

Look, Ma; no wires ... or cables!

by Steve Warga

Milpitas Mayor, Jose Estevez, along with Councilmember Althea Polanski, cut a ceremonial piece of cable at City Hall, Tuesday, December 19, to initiate what was described as EarthLink's first "full-city rollout" of wireless Internet access.

"EarthLink's Milpitas Wi-Fi mesh network changes the game," said Donald Berryman, executive vice president of EarthLink and president of the ISP's municipal networks unit. "People aren't tied to their desks or to limited hot spot areas for coverage - now they can make a choice about how or from where they want to access the Internet. We are happy to be launching this network in the heart of Silicon Valley and working with the city has been a tremendous experience."

The wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) network covers about 10 square miles, according to Berryman. It will allow any wireless-enabled device to access the Internet from virtually anywhere in Milpitas. Computers, cell phones and PDAs will be able to log-on the Net without first being plugged into a phone or cable line, thanks to the installation of over 300 wireless router boxes.

Made by Tropos Networks of Sunnyvale, the routers are strategically placed throughout the city, either on existing structures-such as light poles-or on purpose-built mountings. Shaped somewhat like a street light and accompanied by a box sporting two stubby antennas, the routers emit a beam of digitized radio signals. Receivers in wireless electronic devices "talk" to the routers in similar digital language, thus allowing broadband access to the Internet. According to Berryman, "EarthLink's wireless networks are the first viable alternative to the traditional duopoly of DSL and cable Internet access."

Milpitas just barely earned the distinction of first citywide rollout. Berryman and his crew headed to New Orleans two days later for that storm-ravaged city's rollout of a 20-square mile network. An even larger network of 100-square miles is planned in Philadelphia next year.

Newly-minted City Manager Tom Williams described the city's participation in this joint venture with EarthLink. "We've cooperated by using our resources in the form of right-of-ways for placing their routers; and we've facilitated access to existing infrastructure." In return, the city will enjoy free access in a variety of locations, including the new library and senior center.

After the 30-day free access period, EarthLink's Milpitas venture will operate on a fee basis. Residents interested in signing up for service can subscribe to EarthLink Wi-FiSM. For $21.95 a month, they will receive all the products and support they have come to expect from EarthLink, including eight mailboxes and the ISP's powerful protection tools including virus protections and spam blocking. Qualifying customers also receive a Wi-Fi modem for at-home use. Short-term access rates will also be available.

Milpitas Information Services Director, Bill Marian, has been the point man in this project. He says, "The Tropos routers are industrial, outdoor versions of the devices sold at places like Fry's Electronics. They emit a low-strength radio beam that can be precisely aimed. The beams are weak enough to remain below the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) licensing requirements." This is why the signal will not interfere with most other wireless applications, nor will it "stomp" on existing wireless home and business networks.

Marian is excited by the public safety application possibilities. He anticipates the city will soon be communicating with police and fire department personnel in the field, on a real-time basis. Another application holding much promise is in the reading of water meters. At some point in the near future, Marian expects city water meters to be equipped with receivers that will communicate with the Wi-Fi network, permitting monthly readings to a central computer and eliminating the expense of visual readings of each and every meter. A pilot project should be operating in the next couple of months.

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