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Intel throws weight behind US municipal metrozones

New model could put key telecoms services back in public ownership

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Metranet UK

In the UK, there is a rising call for local authorities to be given access to new spectrum when it is opened up, probably in 2007. Municipal networks operator Metranet argues that the regulator, Ofcom, should not hold an auction to award its planned 2.5GHz- 2.69GHz licenses to the highest bidder, but instead look at encouraging new services and competition from city authorities.

This could create an alternative mobile network geared to the needs of citizens and to applications such as education, claims Metranet’s CEO Roger Horlock, vocalizing an idea that is gaining credence in other European countries too.

Metranet is behind a municipal network in the UK coastal city of Brighton and Hove, which will work under a public-private partnership and carry both commercial and public sector traffic.

The local authority, Brighton and Hove District Council, provided initial funding for the network, which follows the blueprint favored by Intel, with pre-WiMAX backhaul supporting a string of free hotspots as well as local government administrative applications and other public services such as library connections.

The WiMAX base stations will be mounted on tall council buildings and Wi-Fi access points will also be able to use publicly owned infrastructure. Brighton Council will be able to replace leased lines – or add equivalent connections for the first time - between all its buildings and, when mobile Wi- MAX arrives, it plans to support mobile internet access for its workforce at lower cost than 3G.

Public ownership of licensed bands

Horlock writes of the opening up of the 2.5-2.69GHz band: “Perhaps this band doesn't have to go to auction at all. Why should it? Why not, instead, devolve responsibility for the use of that band to each local authority across the UK? Empower them to build their own wireless networks and reduce, possibly eliminate the cost of certain operations, operations we as taxpayers support. From that base, local authorities could offer wireless internet access, video streaming services, personal instant messaging and so on, be that not for profit or otherwise.”

He believes such an approach could create a sixth mobile network, to run alongside the five 3G offerings, and enabled by the increasingly low cost infrastructure that should be rolled out by WiMAX vendors. This would be owned by the citizens and “each local authority would simply act as the steward for the deployment and maintenance of the network. Its profits can then be ploughed back into building the network organically out from the cities and into the rural settings, building capacity and bridging the digital divide”.

Groups of authorities could team together to increase purchasing power, as is already happening in the US – the first WiMAX cooperative was launched in May in Nashville, Tennessee, enabling consumers to club together to purchase broadband networks and services to improve local facilities. Founder John Bransford says Wimaxcoop will help communities and businesses “take control of their broadband by using the cooperative as a legal form to pool resources for WiMAX installation”.

Telecoms cooperatives have traditionally served rural districts but Bransford seeks to extend the model to urban districts and businesses, bypassing both incumbents telcos and government involvement.

Such concepts remain radical, especially in Europe where urban areas have been better served by low cost broadband than in the US. But regulators are starting to reduce their own role and encourage more flexible licensing and more creative business models.

In this climate, publicly owned networks could become an increasingly important force, in unlicensed or even licensed bands, and the countries that privatized their telcos some years ago may come full circle and see the public sector, once again, taking ownership of core infrastructure. For vendors like Intel, this can only accelerate usage of broadband services, making it urgent that it persuades the public bodies to adopt its own favored technologies for their roll-outs.

Copyright © 2005, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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