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Rhode Island embarks on statewide wireless

America's smallest state is seeking to become its first to offer a wireless broadband network from border to border.
/ Source: Reuters

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 technologies.

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 initial tests.

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, McClure said, "there's no groundswell of consumer support for it."

More than 80 U.S. cities have wireless networks, according to a study done in August 2005 by the U.S. Internet Industry Association, which represents Internet companies.

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, McClure said.

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 project.

"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.