WiFi network building boom

There were no precedents in early 2004 when Chaska, Minn., gotfed up with the prices of local DSL and cable services and deployeda broadband wireless network for its citizens. The Minneapolisexurb of 20,000 dug US$1 million out of its capital improvementbudget, built a Tropos Wi-Fi mesh, and set itself up as a wirelessISP.

This ripple in the pond of municipal infrastructure advancementsquickly became a tsunami. By the middle of last year,MuniWireless.com noted that it was “raining RFPs,” and The YankeeGroup analyst Lindsay Schroth estimates there are some 320 U.S.municipalities that have or are planning to cover themselves withbroadband wireless networks.

Zero to 320 in less than two years is remarkable, given thatlocal governments tend to lag rather than lead technology advances.However, U.S. cities large and small see the unmatched economy,mobility and application benefits of an unplugged last-milesolution, and are employing a variety of business models andarchitectures to get them.

The best approach depends on local circumstances, but Schrothsees some kind of public/private partnership as “an absolute must.Government doesn’t have the capability to build, market and deliverinnovative services. A better approach is for a service provider tobuild a wholesale network with a city as its anchor tenant,” shesays.

No service provider stepped up to the plate in Chaska, butlarger cities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco have no dearthof suitors for their proposed municipal networks. Philadelphiastruck an agreement last October for EarthLink to blanket the citywith a broadband wireless infrastructure, deploying a Wi-Fi meshfor service delivery and using WiMAX backhaul.

The plan has competing wireless ISPs (WISP) joining city-ownedWireless Philadelphia as EarthLink tenants, with WP getting apercentage of the fees. Philadelphia also expects annual savings ofabout $2 million from replacing dial-up access and T-1 links usedby field crews and remote facilities.

Meanwhile smaller cities have been beating their big-citycousins to the punch, following Chaska’s lead and building theirown networks. Fort Worth, Texas, exurb Granbury was using broadbandwireless to connect city buildings, and wanted high-speed accessfor laptops that a Homeland Security grant had put in its policecars.

However, Texas municipalities can’t be ISPs, so Granbury ispartnering with local WISP Frontier Broadband. Frontier operatesthe Tropos-based network, using virtual LANs (VLAN) to separatepublic Internet access from the city’s official traffic.

Down on the Gulf coast, Corpus Christi was looking to leverageabout 70 miles of fiber interconnecting its traffic signals. InFebruary 2004 the city covered 24 of its 147 square miles with aWi-Fi mesh that uses Alvarion’s pre-WiMAX technology for backhaulwhen direct fiber connections aren’t available. The rest of thebuildout is scheduled for completion in August, for a total cost of$7.1 million. The infrastructure’s excess capacity is sold to localISPs.

“This provides more of a level playing field to innovative ISPswho don’t have or can’t afford to build their own infrastructures,”says Leonard Scott, an MIS business unit manager for CorpusChristi. “The result is more varied and competitive offerings tocity residents.”

South Sioux City, Neb., a suburb of Sioux City, Iowa, has takenWiMAX a step further by rejecting Wi-Fi for a mobile pre-WiMAXsolution from NextNet. Like Granbury, South Sioux City got a grantfor police car laptops, and wanted to provide them with high-speedaccess. Officers got a taste of this when they drove through one ofthe city’s Wi-Fi hot spots, but elsewhere they had to communicateat a frustrating 9600 baud.

In August 2004, the city used reserve utility funds to installfour base stations on each of two water towers, leveraging itsexisting fiber infrastructure for backhaul. The wireless network isoperated by partner EverTek, which carries government traffic onone VLAN and sells public Internet access on another, returning 15percent of that revenue to the city.

South Sioux City also plans to test fiber to the home, butbroadband wireless “is clearly the cost-effective last-mile choiceright now, and it also provides a huge amount of flexibility forapplications,” says Lance Martin, communications coordinator forSouth Sioux City.

Initial municipal applications include public safety, automatedutility meter reading and inspection services.

In South Sioux City, images captured by some 125 surveillancecameras can be viewed remotely on laptops in police cruisers and bydispatchers. An automatic vehicle location (AVL) applicationconstantly transmits location information, enabling the city to seewhere each car is in real time. If police are chasing a suspect whotosses evidence out the window, a screen tap pinpoints the locationwhile the pursuit continues.

The AVL application also could help the public deal withinclement weather. During snowstorms, a track of “breadcrumbs” onthe city’s Web site would show which streets have been plowed.Similarly, children could watch the progress of school buses fromthe warmth of their homes and emerge no sooner than necessary.

High-speed mobile access also is streamlining buildinginspection services. Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff reckons it cansave her city about two hours per day, per inspector, which willclear permits faster.

And it should, if Corpus Christi’s experience is any indication.Inspectors now use high-speed access to begin the reporting processin the field, saving labor and reducing by 25 percent the time ittakes to put up a new building, Scott reports.

Application ideas abound as initial deployments meet or exceedexpectations and cities look to leverage and expand them. Theseinclude telemetry systems for controlling and monitoring pumphouses, water towers and electrical substations. The networks alsoprovide a more flexible and cost-effective platform forprisoner-release programs that utilize ankle-braceletmonitoring.

“Mobile broadband wireless is a revolutionary technology thatwill have as much impact as the Web did in the 1990s on how welive, work and play in the 21st century,” Neff concludes.

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