Reading the US mainstream press gives you the impression that deployments of municipal wireless networks came to a complete halt when EarthLink pulled out of the business. While it’s true that the rush to deploy municipal wireless in the US has died down, the opposite is happening in Asia – especially China – where cities are rolling out large-scale Wi-Fi networks in partnership with local carriers. The latest city to announce the completion of a municipal wireless network is Hangzhou in Zhejiang province.
Last week, I spoke to John Elms, CEO of Azalea Networks (a Milpitas-based wireless mesh equipment company that provided the wireless base stations for the Hangzhou network) about muni wireless in China. According to Elms, deployments of large-scale Wi-Fi networks (from large hotzones created for the Beijing Olympics to citywide Wi-Fi networks such as the one in Hangzhou) are driven by public safety and security applications. In China, local governments are much more involved in the planning, deployment and maintenance of muni wireless networks, not only because they are anchor tenants, but also because they have strong ties to the communications providers who run the networks. Moreover, delivering broadband service is a higher priority for Chinese municipalities than it is for their US counterparts. Chinese local governments perceive wireless networks as key infrastructure that will support a variety of critical services for traffic management, utilities, enterprise and consumer applications; they do not see wireless infrastructure as a means for providing Internet access alone.
Azalea Networks is fairly new to the wireless mesh equipment scene. The company started in April 2005 and began shipping its products in April 2007. It has received $27 million in venture capital funding; its founders are graduates of Tsinghua University in Beijing. Among its most prominent customers is CECT-Chinacomm, the operator of the Beijing wireless network. Azalea set up more than 800 base stations in five hotzones (Wireless Beijing) for the Beijing Olympics.
In total, Azalea has deployed wireless networks (citywide and hotzone) in six of the major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Yangzhou, Nanjing and Guangzhou. They also contributed wireless equipment for the earthquake emergency relief efforts in Sichuan province (similar to the efforts of mesh equipment providers who set up emergency communications in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina).
Azalea has US customers, but in the US, they focus on video surveillance. They will be announcing a deployment in Colorado and they submitted a bid for the Aurora (Illinois) municipal wireless project.