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June 15, 2005 8:32 am

Freedom to roam makes new pioneers of Minnesotans

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There are many reasons why cities and communities choose to set up large scale ‘mesh’ Wi-Fi networks, says Ron Sege, chief executive of Tropos Networks, the leading US-based supplier of metro-scale Wi-Fi mesh networking systems.

In the case of Chaska, a small city just southwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the driving force was a desire to ensure that all its residents had access to a low cost broadband service.

“We believe that the internet is going to be just as much a part of everybody's future as the telephone or electricity is,” said Bradley Mayer, Chaska's information systems manager. “We wanted to make broadband wireless access available to everyone in Chaska at a reasonable price.”

Using Tropos MetroMesh equipment and with a capital budget of less than $600,000, Chaska was able to offer $15.99-a-month fixed and nomadic broadband services to its residents and to develop a profitable business plan with positive return on investment in two years or less.

Today, one year after the city with 7,500 homes and a population of 18,000 became one of the first in the US to deploy a ‘muni’ (municipal) mesh Wi-Fi network, more than 2,100 homes have signed up for the service.

In fact Chaska has a solid track record of providing attractive services to its residents. For example, in order to ensure consistent levels of service and pricing, the city started its own electricity utility. When in 1998, the city noticed that incumbent telecommunications providers were ignoring the broadband data needs of schools in the community it formed chaska.net, a wireless internet service provider (Wisp) owned and operated by the city.

Chaska.net deployed wireless point-to-multi-point technology to replace the traditional fixed T-1 lines traditional used by educational institutions before expanding its services to provide Chaska businesses with broadband access.

Meanwhile, the city government began searching for ways to attract new residents and business to Chaska, and to keep them in town rather than going to neighbouring Minneapolis for shopping and entertainment. After examining various options, chaska.net decided that the only technology that would quickly and economically make the vision a reality would be to deploy a metro-scale Wi-Fi mesh network using San Mateo, California-based Tropos technology.

Financing the network was accomplished using a form of municipal debt known as equipment certificates - private debt instruments with a maturity of less than five years. Chaska.net financed the entire $535,000 capital investment needed for the project with four-year equipment certificates bearing an interest rate of 4 per cent.

Chaska’s metro-scale Wi-Fi network was built using a combination of Tropos Networks’ MetroMesh architecture, KarlNet point-to-multi-point (P2MP) wireless backhaul connections and an operations support system (OSS) from Pronto Networks that manages billing and other back office tasks. 

It also made use of the city’s existing fibre network, which is owned and operated by chaska.net.

Since the city also runs its own electric utility which owns the street lamps throughout the community these were used for mounting the MetroMesh wireless routers - the special ruggedised boxes based on the 802.11 networking standard that are the core of the network, 300 of which have been installed to provide ubiquitous coverage throughout the city’s 16 square miles.

Once connected to power, the MetroMesh routers configure themselves automatically while Tropos’ Predictive Wireless Routing Protocol (PWRP) software manages the handoff between routers as mobile users cross the city and eliminate the need for most of the traditional high capacity wired ‘backhaul’ lines. “This combination enabled the incredibly rapid deployment of a wireless broadband network that is cost effective to install and operate, and is truly scalable to metro-levels,” said Tropos’ Ron Sege.

Network deployment from conception to completion, including surveys, mesh router installation, network configuration and testing, took less than eight weeks. In contrast, traditional fixed wire broadband networks and wireless (3G) networks can take years, and substantial capital outlay, to provide coverage to a community such as Chaska.

“The technology leadership championed by Chaska is a great example of how city services can quickly add true value to the community,” said Mr Sege.

“We are very proud that our unique technology has helped to enable chaska.net deliver this innovative service to the people of Chaska, quickly, at low-cost and on a large scale.”

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