By Richard C. Lewis
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
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 in height, are being
placed in Providence and Newport on the southern coast during the
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, "there's no
groundswell of consumer support for it," said Dave McClure, president
of the U.S. Internet Industry Association (USIIA), which represents
More than 80 U.S. cities have wireless networks, according to a study
done in August 2005 by the association.
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,
FROM CLASSROOMS TO BEACHES
The project is being funded by public and private sources, and once
fully operational, users would pay $20 per month or a membership fee
based on annual usage, said Saul Kaplan, acting executive director of
the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, a partner in the
"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 population.
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.
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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