April 28, 2006

Rhode Island embarks on statewide wireless network

By Richard C. Lewis

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island (Reuters) - America's smallest
state is seeking to become its first to offer a wireless
broadband network from border to border.

Backers of Rhode Island's $20 million project say it would
improve services and make the state a testing ground for new
business technologies.

It also comes at a time when Rhode Island's capital of
Providence is stepping up efforts to lure business from Boston,
about a 50-minute drive away, in neighboring Massachusetts,
where office rents are among the nation's most expensive.

The Rhode Island Wireless Innovation Networks (RI-WINs)
should be fully in place by 2007, providing wireless
connectivity throughout state, whose land mass of about 1,045
square miles is only slightly more than double the size of
metropolitan Los Angeles.

A pilot project involving state agencies, Brown University
and businesses is to begin next month.

The Rhode Island network is a hybrid of WiMAX and WiFi
technologies that would deliver real-time connections at a
minimum speed of 1 Megabit per second (Mbps), allowing users to
download a typical Hollywood-length film in about 100 minutes.
The system will be supported by 120 base antennas placed
throughout the state.

A few antennas, each about 3 feet to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2
meters) in height, are being placed in Providence and Newport
on the southern coast during the initial tests.

So far, no state outside Rhode Island has sought to build a
border-to-border network, said Bob Panoff, a private consultant
and the RI-WINs project manager. While more cities are
interested in becoming wireless, McClure said, "there's no
groundswell of consumer support for it."

More than 80 U.S. cities have wireless networks, according
to a study done in August 2005 by the U.S. Internet Industry
Association, which represents Internet companies.

But use has been sporadic, plagued by costs and sputtering
technology, said Dave McClure, the association's president.
Orlando, Florida, for example, removed its wireless network
last year due to tepid use, McClure said.


The project is being funded by public and private sources,
and once fully operational, users would pay $20 per month under
one fee structure, said Saul Kaplan, acting executive director
of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, a partner
in the project.

"We know the demand signals are there," said Kaplan.

Officials said the network would support services including
business, education, emergency, health care and port security.

During the six-month pilot phase, for example, state health
inspectors will test the system by entering data from
restaurant visits into laptops and sending the information to
the health department.

Emergency workers will test sending patient information
from an ambulance while en route to a hospital.

Graduate students at Brown University, a partner in the
project, will use the wireless network when teaching public
school students.

While the system is not being created for consumers,
officials say it could have everyday applications, such as
retrieving real-time information on the size of crowds at
beaches or to access traffic information while driving.

"A broadband border-to-border network would allow us to
move information to the point of need, wherever it's needed,"
Kaplan said.

Creators say a prime benefit of the network will be to draw
businesses looking to use Rhode Island as a laboratory to test
market new technologies on a statewide, demographically diverse

A study by the Rhode Island-based Business Innovation
Factory, a private, nonprofit organization that launched
RI-WINs in 2004, estimated the annual cost to operate the
network at $5 million.