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« Newspaper Taps Zonker to Roll Out Free Wi-Fi | Main | ICOA Chief Executive, CFO Resign »

July 2, 2006

Seven Groups Vie for Wireless Silicon Valley Plan

A little weekend news about a very large project: The Joint Venture Silicon Valley business group paired with a joint government coalition to issue an RFP a few months ago to unwire the entire valley. I wrote about the scope of this project in January, and the RFP was issued in April. The RFP specified a lot of purposes, from independent low-power sensors to public access to seamless high-speed transportation services. No particular technology was demanded. The number of municipalities involved is now 40, up from an initial, including many of the cities in Silicon Valley.

The Wireless Silicon Valley proposal couldn't possibly cost less than $50m to build, and I would imagine it could exceed $100m depending on how the RFP was answered. That's a lot of capital to come up with, and most RFPs require the financing be secured in some fashion before the final contracts are signed. It's certainly possible to get funding based on being a finalist in a deal this size, of course, but that's dependent on capital providers believing in the business model.

I'm afraid that I will put noses out of joint by stating that I believe only one of the firms or groups that responded to the RFP has the resources to fulfill it at this writing: the consortium of Azulstar, Cisco, IBM, and Seakay. This group also put a bid in for San Francisco, and it combines a lot of technical and operational expertise with a public-service focus that was strong on privacy. Cisco and IBM can fund this out of pocket change and write off a losing proposition as good PR and experience.

Let me walk through why the others are non-starters for me. I can find no information about Blue Horizon Group or "Community Wireless" (a group's name or just a label?). Unless these two firms are well funded and have been running extremely quietly, they don't have practical experience in this sphere. Fire2Wire/Ubiquity Broadband Communities appears to be a well-run Web hosting firm that's breaking into a new arena. They may be great, but I don't see practical experience on their Web site, either. Next WLAN Corp. makes equipment, and lists no practical network-building experience on their Web site. They may do private network building as well.

VeriLan at one point was a small wireless ISP in Portland. They split their business into an events-oriented one (VeriLan Event Services) and broadband wireless (VeriLan, Inc.). Confusing, the former is and the latter They haven't built a metro-scale network to my knowledge--they don't mention even operating service in Portland on their Web site any more--although they bid on Portland. They used Vivato equipment at one point in their history, then upgraded to newer metro-scale gear.

MetroFi would seem to be a good candidate for this proposal at first glance, but I can't see how they could pull it off. They were a small firm until recently, and must be in the middle of raising at least $30m in private capital to build the city contracts they've won in recent weeks. They have a pile of bids and contracts out, too, that might require $10m to $20m more. Without having executed any of these larger deals, I'm not sure how forward-thinking the venture or capital markets are on a project of a scale that has never been done that must be built at the vendor's own expense, even though there's a lot of money for actual services that cities will shift their way. But you have to build the network first.

MetroFi also has no ostensible experience beyond primary residential service through Wi-Fi using a single vendor's gear--SkyPilot. The Wireless Silicon Valley proposal almost certainly requires a mix of different kinds of wireless data standards, and SkyPilot only encompasses some of this potential, while MetroFi hasn't built these other sorts of networks. Call them a dark horse based on these factors, and most likely one of two or three finalists.

The press release specifically notes that EarthLink declined to participate in writing. They're not the be-all and end-all of this industry, but it shows that either they didn't want to go to capital markets to get the money or felt they couldn't produce a return based on the RFP. They may simply have been overwhelmed, too, with the scope of what they have to do this year.

I was hoping to see some other consortiums, including non-profits combining with for-profits, and I thought some of the larger telcos might have been involved, even to the extent that, say, Verizon or Cingular would have pitched rolling out EVDO Rev. A or newer HSDPA on a faster timetable in the area coupled with fiber-linked Wi-Fi in some areas.

It's possible the Azulstar/Cisco/IBM/SeaKay group will simply be judged to have the necessary experience and funding to make this happen and get anointed. The Wireless Silicon Valley press release says that this list of seven will be winnowed down to a short list, and then the best proposal or proposals, they note, would be announced in September, and then, I would guess, trial networks.