Municipal wireless reaches Japan

Cell-savvy Japan is just starting to catch on to a growing U.S. trend--municipal Wi-Fi networks.

Municipal wireless is coming to Japan.

Tropos Networks, a start-up that makes equipment for public Wi-Fi networks, announced on Wednesday that NTT Communications has selected its MetroMesh routers to be deployed in military bases, cities and rural areas in Japan. The first deployment will be at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan.

Because it is a U.S. military base in Japan, traditional telecommunications infrastructure such as DSL and fiber-to-the-home services are not available. To most quickly and cost-effectively address this situation, Japanese telecommunications company NTT Communications chose a metro-scale Wi-Fi network to provide broadband Internet service not only inside buildings but also outdoors throughout the base. The deployment is scheduled go live in the third quarter of this year.

This marks one of the first municipal or public Wi-Fi deployments in Japan, said Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a consultancy specializing in wireless and mobile technologies. Japan and Korea were among the first countries to adopt 3G wireless technology, but they've lagged behind the United States in adopting Wi-Fi, he said.

"Japan has more of a cell-phone culture," he said. "But metro-scale Wi-Fi will be a global phenomenon, so it won't be too long before we see it in every part of the world."

Francois Le, vice president of carrier and international sales at Tropos, said NTT is interested in using the technology for a number of other projects as well.

"Even though Japan has been aggressive in deploying broadband, there are still pockets where people aren't being served," Le said. "And the Japanese are looking for alternatives to fiber."

The United States isn't typically thought of as a leader in wireless technology, but when it comes to Wi-Fi--and municipal wireless in particular--the United States is further along than most European and Asian countries, Mathias said.

Home-based networks using the wireless 802.11 standard are becoming more commonplace in many U.S. households. And companies are using wireless technology throughout their campuses to provide more mobility to workers. Airports, restaurants and coffee shops have also dabbled in Wi-Fi to offer wireless Internet connectivity to customers.

City and county governments have also started using Wi-Fi to give police departments and other city agencies access to the Internet from the field. The trend has evolved over the past year, and now some communities are beginning to use these Wi-Fi networks to offer free or reduced-cost wireless broadband service to their residents.

Philadelphia has gotten a lot of attention in the past few months for its planned wireless network. A local phone company and a cable operator in Pennsylvania have lobbied against the project.

Gear from Tropos has been used in many of municipal Wi-Fi deployments, including New Orleans, La., and Chaska, Minn. It was also used in Philadelphia's initial tests.

Municipal Wi-Fi is expected to become more popular in the United States and throughout the world as new devices are developed that handle both Wi-Fi and cellular technology, Mathias said. Several companies are already developing handsets that will enable people to wander in and out of Wi-Fi hot spots and cellular networks.

"To some degree, 3G wireless and Wi-Fi will be complementary technologies," he said. "There will be devices that offer both technologies, and people will be able to do much more with their cell phones than they've ever been able to do so far."

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