Solution Providers Eye Municipal Wi-Fi

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Comcast's recent investment in wireless mesh networking vendor BelAir Networks and Cisco Systems expected entry into the mesh networking hardware market later this month, among other developments, have turned a spotlight on cities and towns looking to build wireless networking infrastructure. Phil Belanger, vice president of marketing at BelAir Networks, said cable companies are looking seriously at mesh networks as a way to compete in the municipal Wi-Fi space.

"We've been trying to get into the operational side of Comcast for quite some time," he said. "They're clearly looking at doing municipal Wi-Fi on a broader scale."

Solution providers stand to benefit from their ability to reach the lower end of this market, according to Belanger. Although a big part of BelAir's strategy for the municipal Wi-Fi market is to make its products as attractive as possible to carriers, the company is making a significant investment in training VARs how to use its products.

"We need a mix between the regional VARs who bring a combination of opportunities and the carriers, cable and larger channel partners who bring in the big deals," Belanger said.

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Jim Bradfield, CEO of NAS Wireless, a Dublin, Calif.-based solution provider and BelAir reseller, said interest in municipal Wi-Fi has soared over the past few years. "Municipal Wi-Fi has gone from a neat thing to have to something that cities see as a requirement for their telecommunications infrastructure," he said.

When large partners like SBC Communications find opportunities for such projects and provide financing, they look to NAS Wireless to handle the details and implementation, Bradfield said, adding that revenue sharing so far hasn't been a problem. "It's a symbiotic relationship. They fund and sell the project, and it's my job to specify the equipment to be used, create the demo pilots and make sure everything runs smoothly," he said.

However, disagreement over revenue sharing can derail municipal Wi-Fi projects, according to Pete Busam, COO and vice president of Decisive Business Systems. The Pennsauken, N.J.-based solution provider, for example, recently ponied up the resources to compete for a project only to find out that the funding agents hadn't yet figured out how to share the revenue, he said.

"Many projects need to be more clearly defined in terms of where the financial support is coming from and how revenue gets distributed," Busam said.