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Ruckus Seeks To Re-Invent Muni-Wireless

Around 2005, several US cities tried to make a go of metropolitan wireless networking. Many of the initiatives were costly failures, and just as many morphed into shadows of their intended scales and uses. But in IT, sometimes old ideas come back with new teeth. In a recent announcement, Ruckus Wireless announced a new urban wireless project, and in the most curious of locations. It will be interesting to see how this one pans out, and for multiple reasons.

The first interesting part of the Ruckus announcement is where the new downtown Wi-Fi network will be built. San Jose is not only located in California’s fabled tech-centric Silicon Valley, but the city is also home turf for wireless market leader Cisco Networks. Details of whether Cisco actually competed with Ruckus (located in Sunnyvale) for the San Jose project are hard to come by, but there is little doubt the the industry giant’s wireless business unit must be feeling a bit of heartache at the thought of someone else’s hardware casting a shadow on their own campus from nearby light poles.

As for the initiative, it’s worth noting that this is not San Jose’s first dance with municipal wireless. Like many other cities, “the Capitol of the Silicon Valley” tried the advertising-supported thing several years back and flopped hard with it. The reasons for why muni-wireless on the whole has failed so often are many, from politics to poor implementation to customer aversion to the ad-supported model for wireless. But now it’s a new technology day with new players, and San Jose’s pending example may re-ignite the fascination with wireless networks that pepper the concrete canyons of the urban environment-- and Ruckus hopes to lead the revolution.

Wanting to reclaim a bit of the tech glory that has arguably ebbed away to nearby cities like Mountain View, San Jose is partnering with Ruckus and integrator SmartWAVE Technologies for the project. From my conversations with Ruckus, the company feels that their 802.11n Zone Flex outdoor access points are perfect for this sort of task, designed for higher data rates at longer distances and capable of keeping large numbers of diverse mobile client device types happy. Vijay Sammeta is San Jose’s CIO, and has been frequently quoted in a number of venues declaring that he sees a public high-performance Wi-Fi network as a must for his city as one of the world’s leading technology districts. But other than better wireless hardware and more client devices in the streets, how else will San Jose’s muni-wireless network differ from past failed attempts at the same goal?

Interestingly, free wireless for the public and perhaps small start-up businesses that need connectivity is just a piece of the equation for San Jose. Ruckus Wireless’ David Callisch told me that there are some specifics of who can benefit and how from the new wireless infrastructure to be worked out, but also that Ruckus themselves has an interesting stake in the game beyond just reputation as the provider of hardware. While the visitors to city surf the web and San Jose’s municipal departments enjoy new wireless services like networked parking meter stations, Ruckus will use the network as a giant real-world lab.

I’ve found that many wireless product and management sets just don’t get tested on a realistic scale to expose warts before they go to market, and Ruckus sees the San Jose wireless network as a chance to monitor their own expanding product line’s capability in a big way. Though pole-mounted APs serve as the wireless backbone, San Jose businesses could also mesh onto indoor Ruckus units for interior coverage, as just one example of where the project might go. With the ability to monitor these use cases and gauge first-hand whether the network is living up to performance claims, Ruckus should be able to deliver better access and management products and show their competitors what true real-world-based development feels like.

Could Ruckus Wireless and San Jose be about to birth a municipal wireless renascence? We’ll all get a better sense of how big the splash will be later in the year when the network is turned up. But given the current climate of BYOD to the nth degree and expensive data plans, it’s safe to predict that if San Jose builds it, a lot of very mobile tech-folk will certainly attempt to leverage the new network. Whether it fulfills expectations or not will certainly have ripple effects in other cities, so this is one to watch.

I have no Ruckus relationship.