Welcome to Wireless
In some ways, the mind-set around municipal wireless technology is much like that around net neutrality: Most people think its a good thing, but almost no one can agree on what it actually means. Thats not stopping muni wireless from wending its way into cities across the United States, each of which is tweaking the technology to suit the needs of its many constituencies, as well as its budgetary concerns.
Depending on whom you ask, muni wireless can mean a high-speed data solution for emergency workers, automated meter reading, citywide wireless Internet access or a way to help close the digital divide. It may even mean some combination of those things.
“Its very early, so you cant reach any final judgments based on what we see so far,” said analyst Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, in Ashland, Mass.
Mathias added that, currently, muni wireless can be whatever a city decides to make it but that, in nearly every case, it involves public access to Wi-Fi. “There are probably in excess of 400 deployments on a global basis,” Mathias said. “Wi-Fi is going to become as common as cellular over the next decade. Its free when you buy a computer. More than half of phone handsets will have Wi-Fi.”
Mathias said he thinks the availability of devices capable of operating on more than one service, such as cellular and Wi-Fi, will have a major impact on muni wireless.
“Convergence is a major driver for metro Wi-Fi,” he said. “The cellular carriers will become dependent on Wi-Fi. The voice bands will saturate, and they dont have the bandwidth for multimegabit services. If [carriers] augment their capabilities with Wi-Fi, they have hundreds of megabits they can make available because its free spectrum. The technology is available, it is being deployed, and the cellular carriers have a very strong incentive. How can it fail?”
Muni Wi-Fi—and, more broadly, muni wireless—is showing success in only a few places.
The reasons are as varied as the locations. In some cases, its because the municipality doesnt realize the cost or difficulty; some cities find that they dont have the means to manage such large and complex projects; and governments sometimes want something for nothing—that is, they want a vendor to pick up the costs, but they cant agree on how vendors can make any money.
The recent collapse of San Franciscos much-hyped municipal wireless plans is only the latest demonstration that theres no such thing as a free wireless lunch. The same thing happened in Chicago, although at a much earlier stage of planning.
For more on San Franciscos muni wireless saga, read Jason Brooks column.
San Francisco and Chicago wanted a free network for everyone, but neither city was willing to commit to using the network for city services. And, in the case of San Francisco, at least, the forces that run the city let the whole thing become a political football.
The problem is that municipal wireless networks are expensive to install, and theyre expensive to run. Without some assurance that theyll have a stream of revenue, companies that might be convinced to operate such a network wont do it.
eWEEK Labs examined three implementations to see where municipal wireless is working, why, and how enterprises may benefit. Because, while enterprises arent cities, many of the factors that affect municipal wireless implementations—including complexity and coverage issues—also affect enterprises.
In Providence, R.I., Greenville, N.C., and Riverside, Calif., the powers that be figured out that they needed to make municipal wireless a viable proposition for the company thats doing the wireless work. In the case of Providence, it was easy because the municipal wireless network was built for the city to support city services. In both Greenville and Riverside, the cities agreed to play a role in using—and paying to use—the network.
Page 2: Welcome to Wireless
.I.”> Providence, R.I.
One of the most successful muni wireless implementations is in Providence, R.I. In this midsize New England city, there was really only one goal for the citywide wireless network: to make sure emergency services had the communications they needed.
The Providence project was announced in August 2005, was first tested in April 2006 and was demonstrated to the public in September 2006.
Chip Yager, director of Motorolas Mesh Network Product Group, in Lake Mary, Fla., said Providence is a true success.
Yager had a lot to do with how Providence and its CIO, Charles Hewitt, approached muni wireless. “When I look at the success of Providence, it was a given,” Yager said. “We didnt have doubts that the Motorola piece would work fine. The successes are the things that Charlie Hewitt had control of, such as managing the folks and the pole rights.”
Yager said that for the Providence police department to get the access it needed—a major goal of the wireless network—he had to be able to control the load and the bandwidth.
What is the cost of “free” wireless? Find out here.
Now that the network is in place, the police force is using it for everything from delivering mug shots and reports to allowing police supervisors to perform their administrative duties from the field. Providence CIO Hewitt said this effectively increases the size of the police department because it means that officers are in the field full time, except when they have to physically deliver evidence or suspects to the police department. Hewitt said Providence police officers have access to the same software in their squad cars as they do at their desks, giving them true mobile offices.
Getting buy-in from the police department was crucial to the projects success, Hewitt said. “Every application Ive ever done involves getting the right people involved,” he said. “In the case of public safety, the first thing I did was make sure the chief of police was right behind me with his staff. We never would have undertaken this project if we hadnt had a good, strong backing from public safety.”
Yager said that while Providence is using the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, its not using Wi-Fi. Instead, the city is using proprietary communications technology licensed by Motorola from the Department of Defense. Yager said this made the network more secure and less subject to interference from other devices operating on the same frequency band.
Meanwhile, the police department continues to add applications. Video is on the way, for example. In addition, other departments will soon be joining the Providence network. “Next, we are expanding the use within public safety and getting the fire department on board,” Yager said. “Then well extend the use of the network into the building inspection area.”
Hewitt said he doesnt plan to add public Wi-Fi access any time soon, although he figures that will come along eventually. “Im sure it will happen,” he said. “I keep in touch with whats going on in Boston. The model theyve set up is probably what will work here in Providence. They set up a nonprofit and got the activists involved. Theyve got the municipal government as a tenant on the network. I dont think the city of Providence will try to do it on its own. We are very challenged in getting funding.”
Page 3: Welcome to Wireless
.C.”> Greenville, N.C.
Greenville, N.C., is taking a different approach to muni Wi-Fi than some other cities. In Greenville, muni Wi-Fi serves the downtown area and the adjacent East Carolina University. Installation began in March 2007, and the Phase 1 installation was completed in May.
Greenville chose Nortel Networks to take on the muni Wi-Fi project, a natural outgrowth of existing city operations, according to Greenville IT Director Rex Wilder. “We went with Nortel because we had a Nortel PBX and decided to keep that system and add Nortel VOIP,” Wilder said. “It was easy to continue with a Nortel wireless product.”
Read here about the myth of municipal wireless.
Angela Singhal Whiteford, director of municipal wireless solutions for Nortel, said Greenville was very focused in terms of the goals for its implementation.
“Theyre focusing on the downtown using a wireless mesh technology,” said Whiteford in Boston. “The reason theyre doing this is economic development. Theres also a tie-in with the university. East Carolina University thought that one way to attract students to the university was to advertise that it has Wi-Fi in the downtown area.”
Greenville has solved the funding problem by getting private industry to pay for the municipal Wi-Fi system.
“In general, its the operator thats providing and paying for the network,” Whiteford said. “We brought a service provider to the table, and that provider is WindChannel Communications. Thats a big deal because a lot of the cities say they dont want to own and operate the network. They say theyll be an anchor tenant and give right of way.”
Another good reason for going with a provider is support. “Smaller cities probably have an IT staff of two to five people,” Whiteford said. “For them to own and operate these networks, thats the last thing they want. Thats not their core competency.”
Page 4: Welcome to Wireless
.”> Riverside, Calif.
Riverside, Calif., is implementing muni Wi-Fi to ensure that all citizens are being served. The muni Wi-Fi network, still under construction, is an extension of Riversides community-oriented computing initiative.
“In the late 90s, we started with a project called Riverside Community Online,” said Michael Beck, assistant city manager. “It created a consolidated portal for the city and related entities, and one of its initiatives was computer training and providing computers for low-income households.”
Beck said the next step was providing free Wi-Fi to the community. “We focused on the downtown,” he said. “We created the downtown wireless mall, which was free Wi-Fi in the downtown corridor, and that eventually was expanded to 27 blocks. Then we expanded to citywide Wi-Fi.”
Creating a citywide Wi-Fi network is beyond the means of most local governments, so Beck called in the experts. “AT&T is providing access to the entire city for free—up to 512K bps—supported by advertising,” he said. “People can pay for faster access—up to 3M bps.”
Beck said that in addition to the public Wi-Fi network, AT&T is installing a public service network that operates on 4.9GHz. The city will be paying for this network. “We pay for each connection or radio we install,” Beck said. “Its entirely data. It includes police, fire, public utilities, public works and code enforcement. The 4.9GHz [band] will be used for wireless cameras.”
The city of Riverside serves as a model deployment for AT&T.
“Riverside is our first deployment,” said Ebrahim Keshavarz, AT&Ts assistant vice president of product marketing for business development, in Bedminster, N.J. “We design, build, own and operate our networks. Riverside is the current model of metro Wi-Fi. The citys responsibility is to provide power and poles, to give us permitting, and to give us applications and revenues as an anchor tenant.
“What we bring to the table is design work about where we will bring assets, access points and access to the network already in the city,” Keshavarz added. “We provide access to a 2.4GHz network for citizens and a 4.9GHz network for public services. These access points use a mesh model to reach larger access points that have wired access.”
The Riverside network is still being built, but so far the results are promising, Beck said. “AT&T is actively installing the radios now,” he said. “Were at about 50 percent on the equipment installation—2 square miles have been live since May. The entire system will be installed by the end of the year, fully operational.”
Beck said the city has some advantages over other similar communities. “One of the advantages that Riverside has is that we own our own electric utility,” he said. “We have our own fiber, and were able to do our own backhaul using the fiber. A wireless system eventually has to get back on to glass, or the wireless system will slow to a crawl. Most people dont understand that.”
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.