By Al Senia

Municipal Wi-Fi networks are sprouting up around the United States, and it’s been independent ISPs such as EarthLink and Google that typically have struck deals with cities to provide wireless broadband access in an attempt to wrest market share from incumbent service providers.

Now in an example of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality,” Sprint Nextel has entered into a 60-day trial with the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev. to launch a mesh Wi-Fi broadband network. The wireless service is primarily aimed at helping city officials and emergency responders work more efficiently in the field, although it will also be made available to every resident, visitor and business in the city of 175,000.

Sprint views the trial as a learning experience. “We are doing this to better understand how people use it and to measure network performance,” explained one Sprint executive at the TelecomNext trade show, where the announcement was made this week. Like other service providers, Sprint is studying how to develop a Wi-Fi business model that can actually make a profit. (Sprint is covering the network’s cost, but it won’t reveal the amount of the investment.) Henderson Mayor James Gibson says police and fire personnel, as well as safety inspectors will heavily utilize the wireless system.

The trial is being touted as the first municipal Wi-Fi trial of any magnitude carried out by a local operator in the US market. The Wi-Fi service is actually being operated by Sprint’s local communications business, which is expected to separate from the parent company later this year and operate under the name Embarq.

What’s interesting about this situation is that Sprint is actually competing with itself since it offers PCS and EVDO service in the same service footprint. Of course, it’s not at all clear whether the Henderson trial will extend beyond the end of May. But if it does, Sprint could conceivable lose existing broadband customers to the new citywide broadband network. (It could also lose telephone customers to VoIP running over the network.)

Of course, Sprint and other incumbent providers face the same problem battling the municipal networks in cities across the US. At least in Henderson’s case, Sprint can somewhat control the competitive fray, as well as lock out other Wi-Fi service providers. For these reasons, if this experiment extends beyond its initial date, it could serve as a model for incumbent telcos, especially if Sprint ends up with a business model that actually works and turns a profit.

(Al Senia is the editor of America’s Network.)



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