Intel throws weight behind US municipal metrozones

New model could put key telecoms services back in public ownership

Analysis Intel is throwing its financial, technical and lobbying weight behind the rising tide of municipally run broadband wireless networks, seeing these as a way to stimulate uptake of Wi-Fi and WiMAX and so sell more of its chips and increase its influence over the communications world.

It is helping authorities work out the best business models and technical choices for their metrozones, often with a combination of Wi- Fi mesh and, in future, WiMAX. Most of these have to work in unlicensed spectrum, and so have to cope with the threats of interference and with competition from license holders from RBOCs to start-ups.

However, there are rising calls for public sector bodies, with a remit to extend low cost broadband access to the whole population, to have access to valuable licensed frequencies too. In the UK, Metranet is leading the demand for upcoming 2.5GHz allocations to be at least partially reserved for local authorities to create a publicly owned alternative to the cellular networks. Such plans are radical, but with the rise of spectrum trading and deregulation, they are becoming more practical, especially if large companies like Intel help fund the acquisition of spectrum for digital cities. Years after privatization of telecoms in most advanced economies, an element could be returned to public ownership again.

Intel has taken a keen interest in the burgeoning market for ‘digital cities’ – metro areas blanketed in broadband wireless coverage, sometimes privately run, increasingly frequently supported by municipal authorities. It is now stepping up its activities to promote these deployments, seeing them as a key early market not just for Wi-Fi but also for WiMAX, and therefore a means to gain ubiquity for the technologies that is stands the best chance of dominating. Support from influential players, combined with the increasingly flexible approach of the world’s regulators, could put core telecoms activities once again into the hands of the public sector.

By their nature, metrozones use equipment in license-exempt bands, normally 5GHz, but some operators argue that, in order to make money, they will need to offer licensed options, especially as 5GHz spectrum becomes congested. The 3G operators – particularly those, like Verizon, rapidly introducing CDMA EV-DO to US cities – claim their technology offers this capability. But

some non-cellular players are looking to the availability of licensed frequencies at 2.5GHz and below as a means to create a parallel system to 3G for high speed applications in the urban areas – some of them major players such as BellSouth, whose pre-WiMAX services went live in one Georgia city last week; others start-ups, pressurizing for more ready access to licensed spectrum, as represented by the UK’s municipal networks specialist Metranet.

Role of WiMAX in unlicensed zones

Unlicensed metrozones are certainly a more short term opportunity to boost Wi-Fi usage, especially as more advanced mesh techniques emerge from the likes of Nortel and Tropos, and represent one of the earliest chances for a WiMAX business model. Until WiMAX subscriber equipment is sufficiently compact and low cost to be incorporated into a laptop or handset, its main role will be to provide backhaul for Wi-Fi hotspots and meshes; to support high bandwidth intra-mesh links, possibly in licensed spectrum; and to offer T1 replacement services to urban companies, as TowerStream does in major US cities.

The lower backhaul costs that WiMAX often brings compared to wireline leased lines will attract the attention of budget constrained municipal networks, and this is one of the options that Intel is promoting in its latest round of activity focused on metrozones. It is sending consultants and advisers to major cities that are considering municipal zones, to help them place these on a sound technical and business footing. There has been rising concern that, even where city authorities do not have their hands tied by the tide of legislation that bans or restricts municipally funded broadband, they are entering the market without a clear idea of the costs involved.

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