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Wi-Fi vendor condemns BT 'secret' contracts

Wireless cities are tender-less too.

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A Wi-Fi vendor has criticised BT for failing to put its city wireless scheme out to tender, and warned of "a lot of secret squirrel" activity in the market.

BT announced this week it had selected hardware suppliers for its first 12 Wireless Cities. But, according to Jess Thompson-Hughes of integrator React Technologies: "We didn't see it go out to tender - and we were looking."

React Technologies works with with Strix equipment on metropolitan mesh installations - exactly the sort of expertise needed by BT in its roll-out plans. Thompson-Hughes is suspicious of the decision not to put such a public project out into the marker. "There is a lot of secret-squirrel stuff going on in this sector," he warned.

BT chose Motorola and BT Wholesale as its hardware partners. Each will supply the gear for six cities. The telco giant argued that it didn't tender in order to get the project moving and that it needed to work with suppliers it already knew well. Probably no bad thing amid all the wireless rivalry.

"The rationale is we wanted to accelerate the programme, so we wanted to pick a tested solution - that's the [BT-developed] Westminster system, but we also wanted to pick a solution from the more advanced US market," said David Hughes, BT's director of wireless broadband. "It was an informal approach. We are intending to do a formal tender in the next quarter, so we're ready if we decide to expand the project."

Hughes also gave more details of the Wireless Cities project, which will see BT roll out Wi-Fi services in 12 cities across the UK. He said that relatively small areas of each city will be covered to start with, while BT and the councils assess service uptake.

He confirmed too that the networks will not be free to use. As well as providing paid-for OpenZone coverage and services for the local councils involved, BT broadband customers will be offered extension packages, which would also allow BT Fusion handsets to make VoIP calls. "Social inclusion is a hot topic, but our stance is that a sustainable wireless network is not free," he said. "We are keen though to work with central and local government to see if we can find ways of meeting those needs."

Both the technologies chosen by BT for its city networks are mesh-based Wi-Fi, with routers mounted on lamp-posts and other "street furniture". In the Motorola scheme - already working in cities such as Philadelphia and Anaheim - roughly one in four of the Tropos routers is also a gateway, via a Motorola Canopy 5GHz radio backhaul. The BT/Cisco scheme has a wired backhaul in every third router or so.

"We are intending to blend the best features of the two, going forwards," Hughes said. "A lot depends on the mix of applications - fixed is better for some solution, for example if you have fixed cameras to support, but if your cameras as mobile, say, wireless is better. He added that it will also depend on the councils involved, as they have their own agendas and priorities for applications.

"The experience in the US market is that mesh is very robust - in New Orleans it was the last network to fail when Katrina hit, and the first one back up afterwards," he continued. "It's very flexible too, it allows you to cover a large area and then in-fill when you know where the capacity is needed."

But it has to be a formal mesh, he said, as trials of informal meshes - where householders band together and agree to share their access points, for instance - have proved to be too dependent on the individuals involved.



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