Courthouse, city pushing Wi-Fi networks

U.S. city and county governments are embracing Wi-Fi technology to provide high-speed data service to public safety agencies and Internet access to citizens, and now Bernalillo County, N.M., has adopted the technology to support Internet access for judges, lawyers and jurors in its courthouse.

The service, the first phase of which went into operation in February, also provides wireless voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone service for security personnel. The second phase of the project is now getting under way, with completion set for December.

In a separate Wi-Fi development, Hermosa Beach, Calif., plans to turn on the first phase of its free, citywide Wi-Fi network on Wednesday.

Jim McMillan, principle court technology consultant for the National Center for State Courts, in Williamsburg, Va., called Bernalillo a pioneer in the use of Wi-Fi in courts, especially with its use of Wi-Fi VoIP phones. “That’s a first,” McMillan said, referring to the VoIP phones. He said the Bernalillo courthouse “has to be one of the first” in the country to offer free Wi-Fi service for jurors.

Paul Roybal, CIO of the Metropolitan Court in Bernalillo County, which encompasses greater Albuquerque, said the court has just kicked off the second phase of a US$150,000 Wi-Fi deployment that will provide both Wi-Fi VoIP and data services throughout the 10-story courthouse. The network hardware includes two BeaconMaster Layer 3 routers and, once complete, will include 65 BeaconPoint 802.11a/b/g access points from Chantry Networks Inc. in Waltham, Mass., Roybal said.

Roybal, who started his career with the court in 1977 as an IBM 360 programmer, said the Wi-Fi network is designed to reduce juror frustration with “downtime” while waiting to be called for cases.

The VoIP phone service will replace a dedicated 900-MHz phone system that had trouble operating in some areas of the steel-and-concrete structure and will also get around a ban on cell phones within the courthouse, Roybal said.

The network used by judges and lawyers is separated by a firewall from the network used by jurors, Roybal said. The network will provide the lawyers and judges with Internet access for research, a boon for attorneys who don’t have offices in the building.

Luc Roy, senior director of product management at Chantry, said the BeaconMaster routers used in the Bernalillo courthouse segregate and firewall traffic through the use of virtual private network connections, with the router capable of supporting 50 such networks.

Roy said network managers can control access to subnetworks by assigning different sets of Wi-Fi service set identifiers (SSID), the up-to-32-character header broadcast by an access point. Client devices must use the same SSID as the one broadcast by the access point, and judges, lawyers and jurors will all be assigned different SSIDs in the courthouse.

The courthouse network uses two BeaconMaster 1100s, which can support up to 100 access points each and are priced at US$22,000 apiece. The BeaconPoints cost US$395 each.

Roybal said he has equipped the court security force with 36 NetLink Wi-Fi VoIP phones from SpectraLink Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Ben Guderian, director of marketing at SpectraLink, said the phones cost US$595. Although that price might seem high compared to basic cell phones, which go for around US$100, Guderian said mobile VoIP users save monthly costs on airtime.

The NetLink phones provide about four hours of talk time before they need to be recharged, or enough to cover a security guard shift, Guderian said. Chantry provides an interface between the Wi-Fi phones and the court’s Call Manager from San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc.

McMillan said the Bernalillo Wi-Fi installation is the beginning of a trend in Wi-Fi deployments at courthouses nationwide. The state of North Carolina already has plans to install Wi-Fi in all 100 of its courthouses, while Courtroom Connect in New York has installed paid Wi-Fi networks in 21 state or municipal courts, according to spokesperson Michelle Beaudry.

Meanwhile, the city of Hermosa Beach, with a population of 21,000, plans to provide free Wi-Fi service throughout its 1.3 square miles and will launch the service Wednesday in the downtown area. The initial phase of the project offers nine access points that will cover about 35 per cent of the land area. City Councilman Michael Keegan spearheaded the Hermosa Beach project based on his experience offering free Wi-Fi at his local bakery and cafe.

LA Unplugged, based in Hermosa Beach, is the systems integrator for the network, which is built around 802.11a/b/g access points from Strix Systems Inc. in Calabasas, Calif., and high-gain antennas from WiFi Plus in Brunswick, Ohio.

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