March 5, 2004 By Blake Harris
Aiirmesh Wireless, previously Aiirnet Wireless, made wireless broadband access available to Cerritos' 51,000 residents, and later created the adaptive, self-organizing, scalable, wireless mesh network covering Cerritos.
City officials in Cerritos were not excited about being in the forefront of a significant technological development. Instead, they worked with Woodland Hills-based Aiirmesh simply to solve an increasing sore point for the otherwise upscale community: Many residents did not have reasonably priced broadband access to the Internet via cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL).
Usual solutions for broadband Internet delivery simply weren't viable in Cerritos. No one in the community has cable modem service, and they weren't going to get it anytime soon. The cable TV service in the area, recently sold to Knology Broadband of California Inc., runs on old unshielded cables, which can't carry digital signals. To upgrade this would be very costly and require extensive digging.
In addition, the local phone company, Verizon Communications, couldn't provide DSL service to the southern third of the city because it's too far from the phone company's central hub -- a limitation of DSL technology. This meant that the only broadband access possible for one-third of the city was via satellite, which isn't cheap.
"Residents were complaining," said city spokeswoman Annie Hylton, who also acted as project manager to help usher in the Aiirmesh deal. "So the City Council directed staff to constantly search for options to try to bring broadband to the entire community."
To accomplish this, the city pursued a wireless solution. The first such effort involved Metricom's Ricochet Network, which used older wireless technology that offered far slower speeds than those possible with Wi-Fi. Another problem is that the company charged higher subscriptions than is typical for home broadband access. Eventually Metricom went bankrupt, and the Ricochet Network went dark across the country.
"Cerritos then approached RNI, the company that bought Ricochet Networks, and asked them to reactivate the transmitters that were still in place in Cerritos," said Hylton. "They took a look at the city, but decided they were low on funds and couldn't reactivate in any additional cities."
When two staff members of the new Ricochet Network went out on their own to launch a new company that would use Wi-Fi instead of the older wireless technology, they were already familiar with the Cerritos situation.
"They decided to make Cerritos the first city where they would deploy a Wi-Fi network," Hylton said. The city pitched in and encouraged the effort by offering free access to streetlight poles, traffic lights and building tops they owned and promising 60 city subscriptions to the service once it was up and running.
Not Without Challenges
Cerritos was a challenge because it was attempting what hadn't been done before, according to Aiirmesh Wireless CEO Stan Hirschman.
"No one had written a book on this because the technology development wasn't there a year ago," he said. "It was in the works. But even in our test networks, we were using pre-production radios, and those just became available in commercial versions in the last little while. So all this has been fraught with interesting challenges."
Cerritos entered into the deal with little assurance that it would offer a practical solution to its dilemma. Although Aiirmesh as a company was only conceived one year prior, it's made up of a team of technical experts in radio frequency (RF) technology who were instrumental in redeploying the Ricochet technology for area networks in Denver.
"Those were the people who bought the Metricom assets from the bankruptcy court when Ricochet went