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Urbandale considers next step in wireless


The city of Urbandale is considering a jump into the wireless revolution as it considers a new system that could boost its economic development efforts and potentially become a prototype for use in other cities, both in Iowa and nationwide.

At the same time that an increasing number of restaurants, coffeehouses, bars, hotels, offices and some cities are luring customers by offering wireless Internet access through Wi-Fi hotspots, Urbandale is looking beyond Wi-Fi to WiMAX, a wireless-access technology that many industry analysts believe will eclipse Wi-Fi in the not-too-distant future.

“I think that Wi-Fi is cost prohibitive, although there are communities that use it,” Urbandale City Manager Bob Layton said. “That’s probably an investment in old technology. This seems like the best way to provide wireless service. The nice thing about it is you don’t have to have a hard line connection, and it’s available anywhere.”

In a Wi-Fi system, a user connects to the Internet through wireless local area networks, or “hotspots,” typically with a range of up to 300 feet. The downside is that users must reconnect when moving between hotspots. WiMAX, on the other hand, is designed to have a range of 30 miles from a single transmitter, and operate at a faster speed.

For providers, WiMAX appears to be more cost effective as well, with less capital equipment required than with Wi-Fi hotspots. To implement a Wi-Fi system, Layton said the city would have to erect antennas within short distances of one another to prevent dead service spots.

But the technology itself is still emerging. The new WiMAX wireless standard was approved last year by a consortium of more than 200 corporations, and equipment is scheduled for standards certification this summer. Also this summer, the technology industry is expected to approve an enhanced version of WiMAX, intended for use in moving vehicles. Unlike Wi-Fi, the enhanced version will allow users to reconnect easily as they travel from one hotspot to the next.

Layton expects it will be one to two years before a system could be rolled out in Urbandale. In the meantime, the city plans to work with private technology consultants to determine the feasibility of implementing a WiMAX system.

“I’m not confident we can make it work,” he said, “but I’m confident we’ll look at it.”

Urbandale, in its strategic plan, has identified methods for improving its use of technology, both internally and for economic development purposes.

“If we can make ourselves attractive to businesses and residents, then I think that achieves that purpose,” Layton said. Becoming an early adopter of WiMAX might enhance Urbandale’s prestige as well, as it could become a prototype for cities considering the technology.

Last week, Marshalltown began offering free Wi-Fi service in its 20-block downtown historic and business district, making it the first city in Iowa to provide free wireless Internet access. City leaders said it was one step in an aggressive economic development focus that will allow the community to overcome the digital divide and improve the quality of life for every resident and business.

The service, Layton said, could potentially be free to users in Urbandale, paid for through advertising and other revenue-generating methods, similar to the approach taken in other communities. The only cost to users would be purchasing a wireless card for their computers.

As Urbandale looks into the feasibility of WiMAX, city leaders must also consider whether to establish a city-sponsored network or private network. Layton said a partnership with a private company would forestall criticism that the city was competing with private enterprise.

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