October 01, 2006

Silicon Valley Gets Wired

Silicon Valley is set to become a free wi-fi hot spot.  The open network Silicon Valley Metro Connect will offer universal broadband wireless Internet access to all Silicon Valley users covering 42 municipalities and nearly 1,500 square miles. Beyond providing wireless access to the general public, the network will also be capable of supporting a broad range of uses by residential, small business, public sector and commercial users. The Silicon Valley Metro Connect team, including companies such as IBM, Cisco Systems, Azulstar Networks, and SeaKay, is offering a combination of innovative technology capability and public benefit. Silicon Valley Metro Connect will build the network based on the latest Cisco Systems mesh wireless infrastructure technology, with a technology upgrade program to ensure long-term network vitality and scalability. IBM will provide network design and integration services, as well as technology applications for public agencies and local utilities. Azulstar Networks will act as the network operator for service provisioning of the 802.11b/g base wireless network. SeaKay will work with municipal and public benefit agencies to customize the network to their needs, and will also spearhead outreach and digital inclusion programs to meet the economic development and social benefit objectives of the network. The social benefit objective include providing an alternative communications medium to first responders -- fire, police and emergency medical -- when traditional communications systems may not interoperate, enabling healthcare workers to be able to access information wherever they are, and students can more easily engage in learning beyond the classroom. Silicon Valley Metro Connect is a privately owned and operated network which will be supported by a sponsorship format.  The goal of sponsorship is to ensure a diverse stream of revenues, hopefully so that the network can weather changes in technology and the economic environment over time. The wireless network will offer up to 1Mb data speed for the free foundation service, and comes with built-in protection of user privacy.  It will also include digital divide programs for economically disadvantaged users. For those who wish to upgrade, premium fee-based services such as wireless VOIP and video streaming will be available. Beginning in 2007, the Silicon Valley Wireless Network will leverage the WiMAX IEEE 802.16 wireless standard for the 2-11 Ghz operating bands, to offer greater throughput for mobile and fixed users and higher quality service for video, voice, and data.

Internet access for everyone is all good, but what about security issues?  True, any illusion of privacy on the Internet is a pipe dream, but wi-fi is not only still not as secure as one would hope, but any hacker can just load up their van with equipment and drive around the metro area until they find something they can use.  And are there any protections from Big Brother?  It’s not quite clear from the announcement what the “protection of user privacy” really means, but the parameters of that user privacy should be made clear to everyone signing on, every time they sign on.  Still, there is an element of “caveat emptor” for everyone in cyberspace these days, and any person who wishes for true privacy and anonymity should most likely stay off the Internet altogether.

Then there is the issue of the Silicon Valley Wireless Network competing with local businesses.  What would the local internet cafes and wi-fi hot spots have to offer if the population is signing on for free, besides the essential coffee?  Local government competing with local businesses is usually a very bad idea, not least of which is because they are undermining their own tax base.  But perhaps the wi-fi hot spots and internet cafes can offer faster connections, or more security, or support for hardware and software issues, rather like an Everyperson’s IT Support Group.  One thing that is not in any shortage in Silicon Valley is creativity, so we expect the small business owners will be able to adapt and perhaps even thrive, in spite of the new competition.

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