Cisco is building a giant mesh network, covering 4800 square kilometres in the province of Brescia, Italy - with more meshes to come in Europe and elsewhere.

"We estimate that our initial investment of €2 million, could deliver a positive financial return of €139 million within six years,” said Raffaele Gareri, chief information officer, for Brescia, who put together a plan to use a wireless mesh to plug gaps in the local information infrastructure.

Although the region is prosperous, at least 70 of its 210 towns and villages have no broadband at all. “Attempts by companies to grow their service offerings have been restricted by the fact that more than half of the province does not have broadband access," said Gareri. Without broadband, Brescia's businesses would be condemned to remain small.

Brescia is spread through a large mountainous region making wired networks hard to deploy. Instead, it is using meshes: around six Aironet 1500 access points cover each town, meshed to a Cisco 2950 switch in the town hall, with the traffic relayed by fibre to a central site in Brescia. It will cover every citizen - but not every square kilometre of the province.

The government is backing the system, becoming a founder client and using it for public services, such as schools and its own procurement needs, while the network itself will be run by an unnamed local provider. "Governments are beginning to realise they need some skin in the game," said Joel Vincent, senior manager, outdoor wireless marketing for Cisco. "They can't wash their hands off responsibility for success."

Five hundred access points and 45 town centre controllers are already installed, and the network is expected to extend to around 1000 access points. Users get 2-4 Mbit/s in the towns, according to Vincent, with faster links available to businesses.

Other meshes are expected to follow: "We have projects all round Europe, and we expect to do this again in other countries including the UK," said Vincent.