Intel has joined forces with several other computer giants to persuade cities across the world to take advantage of Wi-Fi for various government services and, eventually, for services for the public.
The "Digital Communities" initiative involves Intel Corp. and partners acting as technology advisors, providing free engineering assistance for municipal wireless applications.
Among the companies joining Intel are Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Computer Corp., IBM and SAP AG. The 13 cities in the pilot program include Cleveland; Philadelphia; Taipei, Taiwan; Corpus Christi, Texas; Jerusalem and Seoul, Korea.
More than 100 cities are expected to join the initiative in the next 18 months, according to Intel officials in Santa Clara, Calif.
"We think it should eventually make life better for people," said Anand Chandraskeher, vice president and director of Intels Sales and Marketing Group.
Cleveland, for instance, is using a mix of products from Cisco, IBM and Accela Inc. to automate tasks like building inspection. This includes a comprehensive geographic information system that keeps track of sewer lines, water mains and the like.
"When you dig, you know what youre dealing with, and being able to have immediate access online in the field is an incredibly valuable tool," said Jane Campbell, mayor of Cleveland.
Corpus Christi is working with SAP and Tropos Networks Inc. on a vehicle location application that will run across a wireless mesh network.
"Our first effort will be the delivery of services to our employees," said Skip Noe, city manager of Corpus Christi. "The next step will be to take it into the private sector with a partner—to take it to the taxpayer and the residents of our communities."
This is a common plan among Digital Communities cities, which worries some industry analysts.
"They want to provide low-cost wireless services for their citizens—a noble act, but one which is going to cost taxpayers without giving them the right to vote on that kind of deployment," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "The cities are not prepared to run this kind of business. They dont know what customer service in networking is."
Many city officials readily acknowledge this, and are still trying to figure out the best business model for deploying Wi-Fi services to the public.
"Weve determined that the city is not the best provider of services to the end user," Noe said, adding that the company would hire a private company to run the services. Who will foot the bill is unclear, he said: "Well probably end up with a public/private hybrid."
Taipei plans to have access available in 100 percent of the city by early next year. So far the city has some 10,000 access points deployed, with private companies footing the bill.
"The government didnt pay a penny," said Ying-Jeou Ma, mayor of Taipei. "Were doing that not on a government budget, but on a build, operate and transfer model."
In a B-O-T model, a company receives a contract from the city to finance, construct and run a service for a specified period, after which ownership is transferred back to the municipality. It is uncertain, though, what will happen if Taipei takes ownership of the services.
"The business model is still to be developed," Ma said. "There are risks ahead, but there are also opportunities."
Potential Digital Communities customers hope for a best-case scenario wherein municipal wireless broadband will force landline companies to bring down their costs.
"We do seem to be getting gouged because there is not much competition between broadband providers," said Steven Frank, co-founder of Panic Inc., a software company in Portland, Ore. and the mind behind spamusement.com. "There is pretty much just Comcast and Qwest, and a handful of smaller players that are rarely seen or heard. So, probably the biggest benefit of the Digital Communities effort would be to see what effect the introduction of city-wide Wi-Fi would have on the local broadband duopoly."