Intel Corp. has joined forces with several computer giants to persuade cities around the world to take advantage of Wi-Fi for various government services and, eventually, for services for the public.
The Digital Communities initiative announced last week involves Intel and partners acting as technology advisers, providing free engineering assistance for municipal wireless applications.
Among the companies joining Intel are Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc., IBM and SAP AG. The 13 cities in the pilot program include Cleveland; Portland, Ore.; Taipei, Taiwan; Corpus Christi, Texas; Jerusalem; and Seoul, South Korea. Over 100 cities are expected to join the program within 18 months, said Intel officials in Santa Clara, Calif.
The cities in the pilot program have various approaches planned. Cleveland, for instance, is using a mix of products from Cisco, IBM and Accela Inc. to automate building inspection tasks. Corpus Christi is working with SAP and Tropos Networks Inc. on a vehicle location application that will run across a wireless mesh network.
The next step will be to offer Wi-Fi access to the residents of these Digital Communities, 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, an analyst 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,” said Skip Noe, Corpus Christi city manager, who said the city will hire a private company to run the services. Who will foot the bill is unclear. “Well probably end up with a public/ private hybrid,” Noe said.
Taipei is a Wi-Fi world leader, with plans to have 100 percent of the city covered by early next year.
“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.”
Potential customers hope for a best-case scenario wherein municipal wireless broadband will force land-line 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. “There is pretty much just Comcast and Qwest and a handful of smaller players. … So, probably the biggest benefit of the Digital Communities effort would be to see what effect the introduction of citywide Wi-Fi would have on the local broadband duopoly.”