Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rockford, Illinois Goes Wireless Broadband

Rockford, Illinois, a mid-size city and my home town, has just announced a plan to energize its downtown core with broadband via Wi-Fi Internet access. Rockford joins a steady stream of municipalities that are embracing broadband Internet as a strategic asset for future business expansion and the job growth it brings. Unlike the AC power grid or switched telephone service, broadband is becoming a utility by consensus, not federal mandate.

So why Wi-Fi? The most universal of the wireless access standards is 802.11b Wi-Fi. The antenna and transceiver come built-into nearly every laptop sold in recent memory. The pioneers of public broadband access, coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants all offer broadband Internet service via 802.11b Wi-Fi. Most home wireless networks are based on this standard. I even have a wireless all-in-one printer that is Wi-Fi enabled. Adoption of Wi-Fi as the defacto Internet connection has been grass-roots supported and is spreading virally.

Almost as much a mandate has been the gravitation toward "free" Wi-Fi hotspots. Whether the service is free or paid is a strategy that varies from city to city, business to business. In the case of New Orleans, high speed Internet service is free for the moment. It will be throttled back to a lower bandwidth once emergency relief has been completed. Rockford has chosen to support a for-profit consortium, ROC-net Services, that will offer paid access for personal and business use. Other cities have varying strategies.

The common threads in municipal broadband strategies are a standardization of Wi-Fi rather than wireline as the access means, a notable absence of involvement by the incumbent telephone, cable, or power companies, and a belief that broadband Internet is a vital infrastructure for the community. Rather than wait for gradual built-out by small businesses and individuals, cities are putting on a push for universal coverage and free or low cost access.

Rockford's wireless coverage will be centered in the downtown business district initially. Like many rust belt municipalities, downtown development has been almost dormant for decades. It's a smart strategy to try to jump start redevelopment with the infrastructure that will be most in demand for future job growth...the Information Superhighway. Just over a week ago, the Rockford Public Library unveiled its Wi-Fi hotspot to complement the controlled access public terminals. This week, the big news is wireless access covering an 8 square mile area. Things are moving fast.

Rockford is using previously installed but unlit fiber optic rings to feed its wireless access points. A combination of fiber and Wi-Fi will service will provide megabit to multiple gigabit bandwidth to hospitals, financial companies, manufacturers, research labs, independent professionals, and visitors. It is also likely that coverage will expand to the city limits and similar city networks. ROC-net Services has already said it has plans to expand wireless Internet service to 10 counties in northern Illinois.

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