Before cities rollout Wi-Fi networks they need a solid business plan, say experts

With an increasing number of urban and rural municipalities setting up or proposing Wi-Fi networks, one Canadian communications expert is advising a healthy dose of caution.

City planners should focus on creating and implementing an appropriate business model rather than merely on technology, said William Bangert, senior vice-president, information and communication technology (ICT) solutions, Bell Canada.

Bangert was speaking at the recently concluded Wireless Cities Summit in Toronto. “Let the technology fit the mission rather than the mission fit the technology,” Bangert said. He emphasized that no single gadget could provide the answer to a city’s connectivity needs.

The Bell Canada executive said municipal planners should seriously consider vital questions such as:

o Why would the municipality want a Wi-Fi network?

o Who will benefit and what areas should the network serve?

o Where will funding come from, and how may the network’s full potential be realized without exhausting the municipality’s budget?

o How may the system be sustained, maintained and improved down the road? Bangert said municipalities should “focus on [their] core competencies and partner with experts to gain greater success.”

At least one conference participant, however, thought this comment could be used to bolster a vendor’s position.

“Doesn’t it have the effect of scaring (municipalities)?” asked Andrew Clement, professor of information studies at the Knowledge Media Design Institute, University of Toronto.

Clement agrees municipalities should carefully plan out the network strategy but said Bangert “seems to be saying leave the technical stuff to us, you don’t know anything about it.”

A telecommunications analyst agrees with the view that municipalities should look – long and hard – before they leap into Wi-Fi.

“What’s the reason for doing this? If you can’t answer that question, don’t even bother,” said Roberta Fox, principal at telecommunications consultancy firm Fox Group in Mount Albert, Ont.

Fox said networks don’t necessarily have to be wireless. The infrastructure depends on the specific needs and environment of the municipality. “The network can be purely wire, wireless, or a hybrid of both.”

Fox cited the example of the south western Ontario town of Tillsonburg, which in 2002 set up a hybrid network.

Around that time, the farming community of 100,000 residents was hit hard by a slump in tobacco sales. So the town decided that by offering high-speed Internet service within the area the municipality could help local businesses gain more customers, and entice outside companies to relocate to Tillsonburg.

Both goals were eventually met: the network made it easier for local businesses to sell products over the Internet, and several manufacturing companies moved to Tillsonburg.

Fox said the Tillsonburg used fibre cable in the town core, but employed Wi-Fi devices to reach outlying areas.

A similar initiative by Bell Canada to set up a wireless mesh network in Chapleau, Ont. – a town of 3,000 residents – provided some valuable learnings, according to Bangert.

The goal was to turn the town into a massive hotspot for Internet access. The network was supposed to enable voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) communication and high-speed Web connectivity for schools, hospitals and residents

“We found a wireless mesh was suited for small areas such as schools and libraries, but not for a large community,” said Bangert.

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