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."