February 21, 2006 By Jim Downing
Folsom, CA, may become one of the first cities in the nation to provide citywide wireless Internet access using a long-range data transmission technology known as WiMAX.
Folsom could launch a WiMAX network as soon as fall 2007, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the city.
Citywide wireless networks based on Wi-Fi technology, such as the one proposed for the city of Sacramento, rely on hundreds of wireless Internet access points, or "hot spots."
But in the system proposed for Folsom, a single tower could bathe nearly the entire city in a WiMAX "warm zone" of Internet connectivity, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the city.
Few cities have taken this approach, analysts say.
"In terms of municipal wireless, it's actually a very rare thing," said Sam Lucero, a senior analyst with the technology research firm ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y.
"Compared to Wi-Fi, it's much further down the road," he said.
WiMAX is so far down the road, in fact, that consumers -- in Folsom or anywhere else -- likely won't be able to buy laptop computers or other mobile devices that are compatible with a WiMAX network until sometime in 2007.
Folsom Economic Development Coordinator Joe Luchi said that the city is considering the WiMAX technology, rather than comparatively tried-and-true Wi-Fi, for several reasons.
For one thing, because a WiMAX network uses far fewer transmission points than a Wi-Fi network, it requires less equipment and should be significantly less expensive.
WiMAX also should do a good job of complementing Folsom's existing "wired" high-speed Internet service rather than replacing it -- as an extensive grid of Wi-Fi "hot spots" might, Luchi said.
"If residents are satisfied with their current broadband and DSL service, there may not be a real incentive for them to use this service," he said. "This is not intended to compete with that."
In many cases, the existing "wired" Internet service to homes and businesses likely would perform better than the WiMAX service, said Stephen Blum, an independent consultant who prepared the WiMAX feasibility study for the city. Residents also might be reluctant to buy new WiMAX-compatible equipment.
Instead, the WiMAX network is likely to be most useful to mobile Internet users, Blum said. It's also good for setting up secure wireless networks among large groups -- such as city employees or the different offices at a medical campus, he said.
Intel, which employs 7,000 workers at its Folsom campus and is heavily invested in the development of WiMAX technology, appears to have a clear interest in helping along the development of a citywide WiMAX network that might help to showcase future products.
"Their Wi-Fi chipsets got the whole market for Wi-Fi up and running," Lucero said. "They're planning on essentially doing that for WiMAX."
No one involved with the development of WiMAX technology at Intel was available for comment Monday.
Intel helped to pay for the feasibility study of the WiMAX network, and is donating equipment for a pilot version of the network that could be functional as soon as next month.
The WiMAX standard shouldn't make Wi-Fi systems like the one proposed for Sacramento obsolete. Steve Ferguson, Sacramento's chief information officer, said that the Wi-Fi equipment that would be installed could be upgraded to communicate with WiMAX devices, when they become available.
Wi-Fi vs. WiMAX
The big difference between WiMAX and Wi-Fi is range, not connection speed.
Wi-Fi: A citywide Wi-Fi network requires a "mesh" of many transmitters because the effective signal range is relatively short -- about 100 yards. But the technology is robust and compatibility is built in to most new computers.
WiMAX: Promises much greater range from a single transmitter -- perhaps as far as 30 miles. But products compatible with this technology are still in development. WiMAX stands for "Worldwide Inter-operability for Microwave Access."
Jim Downing is a Sacramento Bee staff writer. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.
Photo by Chad Vander Veen.