It's Crunch Time for Silicon Valley Wi-Fi

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Backers of a massive wireless network for California's Silicon Valley have yet to build promised test networks or complete a model agreement for local governments, but at least one executive expects those to be finished by year's end.

The project has slid past its original schedule and still faces negotiations with about 40 municipalities spread across a 1,500-square-mile region, even as municipal wireless runs into tough times in neighboring San Francisco and elsewhere around the U.S. But despite gloomy media reports, organizers are promising results soon.

A model agreement should be completed in the fourth quarter, said Anne-Marie Fowler, a principal at SeaKay Inc., part of the Silicon Valley Metro Connect vendor consortium that will build the project. That deal will be the template for customized contracts with each city. Proof-of-concept networks in Palo Alto and San Carlos should be completed around the same time, she said. The 1-square-mile test networks will first be open to city governments thinking about participating in the plan and then be available to the public for 60 to 90 days, she said.

It's a brave forecast for a project that at one time was expected to start rolling out in January or February of this year and is still on paper. Participants blame ever-changing technology and the complexity of hammering out a deal covering multiple technologies and as many as seven different services. But in a shaky market for municipal wireless, any delay can cause jitters. A report in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this week said the initiative was in danger of collapse. It quoted Russ Hancock, chief executive of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, the nonprofit group organizing the initiative, saying the group was ready to scrap the project.

Not so, according to Seth Fearey, vice president and chief operating officer at Joint Venture, though he added that the group is always looking at how it can move the project forward and thinking about alternatives. Hancock was misquoted, he said. The group is still in talks with Metro Connect over the basic agreement they will bring to individual cities, and there are only a few things left to be resolved, he said.

"It's up to the Metro Connect team to make this thing happen," Fearey said. "We're pushing them as hard as we can."

Once the model agreement is drawn up, Metro Connect will take it to local governments and customize it for their needs. Cities would grant rights to facilities such as light poles for mounting radios, after which Metro Connect will be able to offer residents a subscription service. But the network is envisioned as more than just Wi-Fi. Metro Connect is considering pre-WiMax wide-area wireless, special networks for public safety and transit, and environmental sensor networks. Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM Corp., along with network builder and operator Azulstar Inc., make up the rest of Metro Connect.

The Silicon Valley plan is different from failed deals such as San Francisco's, executives said. Metro Connect won't just build a network and count on advertisers or residential subscribers to support it, Fowler said.

"We don't ask one revenue source to carry the whole day," she said. Many cities have expressed interest in paying to use the network for communications in the field and specialized functions such as meter reading, she said. The consortium is approaching schools and corporations about buying services, too. There will be a free ad-based service, but if ads don't support it, the service can still survive, she said.

Some critics have said the plan, estimated to cost $100 million or more, is too ambitious. Craig Settles, an independent municipal network consultant who has worked with some cities in the area, has said the organizers should have started out with fewer technologies for a few targeted applications to build interest, then expanded later. But Metro Connect's Fowler says the complexity and scale, though they have caused delays, will generate enthusiasm.

"We realized we had something bigger than what we thought," she said. "I would, of course, like to have started earlier, but ... I would not have wanted to start with a smaller vision."

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