Muni Wi-Fi best practices from California

IT officials from three California cities detailed their experiences earlier this week with trying to set up municipal wireless networks, efforts that have yielded varying degrees of success.

Speaking during the MuniWireless conference in Santa Clara, Calif., IT executives from Anaheim, San Francisco, and Los Angeles noted development plans for these networks, both for public services and to bridge the digital divide between those with Internet access and those without.

“Really, it’s been the applications that have been the driving force,” said Robb McIntosh, information services manager for Anaheim.

The city is in the process of building wireless links for public safety, public works, and other services. EDS runs the city’s IT, McIntosh said.

Meanwhile, Anaheim’s citizen Wi-Fi network, intended for resident access to wireless capabilities, is 70 per cent developed, McIntosh said.

San Francisco’s now-stalled efforts to build citywide wireless links were inspired by the digital divide, said Chris Vein, San Francisco CIO.

“[Bridging this divide] remains the driving force for us today,” Vein said.

Plans had called for a mesh network to cover all 49 square miles of the city. EarthLink was supposed to provide the system but that plan did not come to fruition. “Now, we’re kind of stepping back, taking a big breath and looking at what we have to do next,” Vein said.

Anaheim’s choice for paying for its citizen wireless network involves selling subscriptions. In San Francisco, payment options such as subscriptions, or simply using taxpayer funds are still on the table.

“We’re taking a look at everything,” said Vein. “We haven’t ruled anything out.”

Los Angeles also cited digital inclusion as its reason for seeking a wireless network, said Mark Wolf, assistant general manager for the city’s Information Technology Agency.

Wolf stressed the hurdles in having to provide wireless coverage to a city spanning 464 square miles and extending from the ocean to the mountains. Los Angeles has been doing Wi-Fi on a small basis and has been learning from cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco. The plan is at a crossroads, Wolf said.

“It’s a good thing that it’s at a crossroads and not cross hairs, in the sites of a gun,” said Wolf.

Aside from the altruistic goal of digital inclusion, Los Angeles also is equipping its police force with sophisticated wireless equipment from Motorola. Video capabilities allow police to see a scene before arriving; other features include licence plate-scanning, mobile digital cameras, and facial recognition systems.

In other talks during Monday’s general session at the conference, Padmarsee Warrior, CTO of Motorola, stressed that multiple wireless standards such as Wi-Fi and the newly approved WiMax standard will continue to coexist. While Wi-Fi is limited to covering hot spots, WiMax is good for covering large areas.

“The right kind of debate for the industry to have is what combination of these technologies provides true value to public safety, to governments, to municipalities, to consumers, to enterprise, to corporations, etc., as the world becomes mobile. And the world is becoming mobile,” Warrior said.

Speaker Esme Vos, co-founder of, emphasized applications for wireless. These included making wireless capabilities available on public transit so people can get their work done while commuting, traffic management, and energy management. Cities such as Riverside, Calif., Tuscon, Ariz., and Milpitas, Calif., are utilizing wireless to provide city services, she said.

With cities doubling in size every five years but without the ability to double the number of municipal employees, cities are looking to leverage wireless, Vos said.

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