In picking a theme for the MuniWireless conference in Silicon Valley, now close to wrapping up, MuniWireless founder Esme Vos selected an appropriate one -- building the ecosystem
"Initially we were very focused on infrastructure," Vos explained. "And there is of course still a focus on that -- the kind of networks that go up such as mesh and WiMax networks. But now people are really starting to see the potential of what you can do on these networks, everything from e-health to e-learning, public safety applications, mobile workers, code enforcement -- all that is coming up now, finally."
Vos added that a year ago, most initiatives were merely ideas. Today many of them are formalized in RFPs or pilot projects. "Additionally a number of deployments are in production mode, providing us with new insights about what it takes to build successful programs."
Those insights are vital and they are feeding what clearly is an evolving ecosystem that encompasses not just vendors and buyers -- in this case the municipalities -- but also a wide assortment of advocacy groups and even grassroots community initiatives where some very innovative things are percolating.
Few conferences or subjects with an attendance that approached just 600 would draw such an eclectic crowd.
On one end of the scale there were representatives from Google. Larry Alder, product manager at Google described the wireless network the company has just deployed in its home community of Mountain View. "It is our way of giving back to the community as well as a way for us to learn first-hand about wireless networks and how people actually use them," he explained.
Chris Sacca, Google's principal for new business development, challenged hardware vendors to solve some of the current limitations of Wi-Fi hardware such as low radio power in laptops and the definite barriers of getting Wi-Fi, which doesn't penetrate buildings too well, into homes and offices. Free wireless broadband initiatives will be stifled somewhat if relatively expensive CPEs are needed to provide in-home access.
A number of city CIOs, such as Chicago's Hardik Bhatt, Phoenix's Kristine Sigfridson and San Francisco's Chris Vein, outlined the progress of their wireless initiatives.
But on the other end of the scale, there were discussions not just about open source solutions for community deployments, but also what is described as low-cost open hardware. Sanjit Biswas, formally part of MIT's Rooftop Project, for example, displayed a prototype of an open hardware Wi-Fi mesh node that would sell for around $90. These are simple enough for ordinary members of the public to deploy and could be used to extend existing Wi-Fi networks into buildings or even entire areas not served by municipal deployments.
A new non-profit organization called Green Wi-Fi has developed what they maintain is low-cost, workable solar powered Wi-Fi node for use in Third World countries. But already, there is interest in the U.S. for communities which don't have low cost access to lamp poles with power for nodes. And there are definite emergency response applications for Katrina-like situations where networks that could be deployed very rapidly.
And of course, beyond just the purely technical, there were political discussions. Some issues involving telco incumbents were addressed diplomatically. And other things, such as net neutrality and the real challenges of digital inclusion, were explained with a real sense of urgency and a call to action.
It was a multifaceted conference crammed into a couple of days. And it in itself provided evidence that a dynamic, varied and expanding ecosystem is
already growing around the municipal wireless movement.
At the end of the day, this ecosystem with its continuing innovations may be what moves municipal wireless forward as much as anything to the point that its tremendous promise begins to be realized in community after community in America and around the world.
We will be covering many of these developments in greater detail in the weeks ahead.