The common good is back in fashion. Across North America, from San Francisco to Fredericton, more than 200 crusading cities are building municipal Wi-Fi networks. Boosting business, providing Web access for poorer citizens, creating communal communications infrastructures: different cities have different missions driving their Wi-Fi projects.

Wi-Fi unplugs city operations

The common good is back in fashion. Across North America, from San Francisco to Fredericton, more than 200 crusading cities are building municipal Wi-Fi networks. Boosting business, providing Web access for poorer citizens, creating communal communications infrastructures: different cities have different missions driving their Wi-Fi projects.

But one goal in virtually every city’s plan is using ubiquitous wireless technology to shape and streamline government services. There is immense value here if cities broaden their vision by bringing a rainbow coalition of constituents into the picture – and asking them the right questions, says Craig Settles, author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless and president of Successful.com, an Oakland, Calif.-based consultancy.

The Wireless Philadelphia project is a good example of broad needs assessment, says Settles. City planners brought in people from the medical community to find out what they could do if they had unlimited Wi-Fi. “That’s where the visionaries come in, as they’re living and breathing health care issues,” he says.

In St. Cloud, Fla., city managers were asked what the financial impact would be on their departments’ operations. They came back with concrete savings, which the city determined roughly equaled the money that would be needed for Wi-Fi network maintenance.

The potential applications of Wi-Fi to boost service delivery are legion, says Settles. Wireless technology can free government workers from their office chains, especially roaming workers such as inspectors, police, emergency and public utility workers. Crime rates can be reduced if police are walking their beats instead of pushing paper. “But any worker who deals with paper processes can benefit,” he says.

The main reason city workers aren’t already mobile today is commercial telecom services are too expensive – particularly cellular charges, which are fat cash cows for telcos. “If the city owns the Wi-Fi network, then it’s not paying recurring monthly charges. You can underwrite a large portion of the network on that alone.”

Another promising area is asset management, helping cities track and manage the thousands of things they own: vehicles, parking meters, buildings, equipment and so on. “Wi-Fi enabled sensors are better and cheaper than RFID chips. You can build Wi-Fi gadgets with five bucks’ worth of parts and put them on all mobile assets to monitor them,” says Settles.

With sensors to send distress signals, service crews can be sent out as required instead of scheduling maintenance checks, and their equipment can be tracked so it doesn’t go astray.

Settles says the RCMP recently completed a pilot project using Wi-Fi devices attached to cars to track vehicle performance. “It was a two-year project but they paid for the pilot in savings in 18 months, and they’re now ready for deployment on a larger scale to their 11,000 vehicles.”

To improve public safety, cities can create a common communications infrastructure with municipal Wi-Fi networks. Settles points out the lack of a shared radio channel prevented police, firefighters and emergency workers from communicating with each other on September 11, and voice communications also melted down with the destruction of a nearby cell phone tower.

A Web-based infrastructure for both voice and data that everyone can access at a regional or national level with any mobile device can solve the problem. “Then it doesn’t matter what radio channel an emergency worker has.”

Settles believes municipal Wi-Fi can revolutionize health care delivery, an area that is sometimes overlooked in city plans. “Wireless can kill a lot of the paperwork in health care and social work,” he says, noting many burn out and leave these professions because they must spend much of their time on paper care instead of people care.

Referrals, recommendations and checks for resources can be handled on the spot, reducing wait times and trips back to the office.

With aging demographics, Settles believes wireless technology can be particularly useful in home care, which can take the burden off primary care. Elderly and chronically ill patients can be monitored 24×7, and emerging video technology can help emergency rooms do triage remotely.

The million-dollar question is how to fund municipal Wi-Fi network build-out. Cities are still fiddling with the dials of their business models, and there is a bewildering array of public-private sector mixes. Whatever the model, Settles believes cities must have a financial stake to avoid ceding total control to private sector telecom players.

“If you have a vision of using the network to transform health care, education or city operations, then you must retain control,” he says. “If all you contribute is vertical assets like lamp poles, it’s not enough to maintain the direction you want. Once the network is built, what are you going to do, threaten to take away pole rights to convince the vendor to do what you want?”

Rosie Lombardi is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at rosie@rosie-lombardi.com

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