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Advice for Cities Considering Wireless

Analyst Craig Settles is probably happy to see the trend toward cities actually thinking about networks before they build them. For example, the New York City Economic Development Corporation has issued a request for proposal (RFP) to find out if it's even necessary, let alone feasible, for the Big Apple. Rochester, New York is investigating the possibilities. The state of Illinois is holding seminars next week with vendors (SkyPilot, IBM and MetroFi) and officials from Aurora to discuss its experiences with citywide wireless.

Settles was at the MuniWireless conference in Santa Clara, California this week talking about his latest survey report, "Effective Technology Due Diligence: The key to successful muni wireless deployments." He interviewed people in the trenches and making the key decisions about building metro-scale wireless networks in cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chaska, Minnesota. He also talked to representatives from companies like Embarq and EarthLink (the latter sponsored the report).

"The thing that's interesting is the number of people [in the survey] who said you have to do a thorough analysis before you do the technology due diligence," Settles told Wi-Fi Planet. "Do that before you say you want this kind of network or that kind of network. A lot of cities are putting the cart before the horse."

Cities have to find out not only if citizens — residential and business — are actually going to use the network, but also for what purposes. "Unless we get out of the mode of 'press release deployment' — that it's got to be 'this kind of network' and 'it's got to be free' — the end users and the business community will get screwed," Settles says. "That's the bottom line."

As an example of a city not rushing in, he cites his hometown of Oakland, California, which lives in the shadow of San Francisco and its much talked-about Wi-Fi plans with EarthLink and Google. "[Oakland] came to the conclusion... that the technology starts with the human due diligence," Settles says.

He says another good example is Philadelphia. The city worked with focus groups and community meetings to gather information and get the word out about the Wireless Philadelphia plans.

"To get that kind of dialogue, you have to make a commitment as a city," says Settles. "Vendors need to do that a little as well."

He's talking about cities that hand over the running of a network to a private company like EarthLink or HP. These vendors ostensibly have marketing expertise beyond what the municipality can muster. It's time consuming, but knowing Philadelphia did 20 focus groups in 90 days, Settles says that "it doesn't take a year long effort."

"If you don't know what the people will do with the network, you assume for them," he says. "How do you know the network meets their needs? If you haven't polled businesses to see if they'll use VoIP or just e-mail or maybe video conferencing, how do you know the network will work for them? You may not have built it to capacity."

He brings up the topic of digital inclusion — the new term coming out of the Muniwireless conference that could replace the somewhat divisive "digital divide" — as another factor requiring due diligence research. Even if you have a segment of the population without access, the network doesn't help if that group is also technology-illiterate. Getting them online will take not just access and equipment (another expense), but also training.

San Francisco — a city Settles says gets unfairly picked on a lot for its municipal Wi-Fi approach — to its credit has focused on digital inclusion from the start. But it's not enough to just say you'll fix the problem. He says the city plans to do focus groups to get more feedback on that issue while still working out the details of deployment with EarthLink/Google. "Regardless of the negative press about things like privacy, they're coming around to the community outreach part," he says.

In an interesting side note, Google said this week that while it will be providing free Wi-Fi in Mountain View, California as planned, the network will not have advertising, as has been widely speculated on and reported, even here. Mountain View's network, made up of 350 mounted nodes, will offer speeds of 1Mbps. There's a possibility that ads won't happen in San Francisco, either.

EarthLink is against the ad-supported model. It's not alone. One company, MobilePro, actually pulled out of a contract with Sacramento, California when the city insisted on having an ad-driven free service.

"Cities are creating RFPs for vendors to do a task, but not giving the vendor enough information," says Settles. He says cities shouldn't put the onus of the research on the vendors. "Cities have all the in-roads."

Cities also should do some extra due diligence on the vendors as well, according to those Settles interviewed. What happens if a city is paying a vendor for a build out, but the vendor goes under? Perhaps more importantly, just because a vendor builds a network for a municipality, does that mean they can get the word out about it? Marketing is something that should be built into every RFP, and the campaign should be specific to their area. What works in the Bay area won't necessarily work in the Midwest.

"You want to make sure the vendor is not just two people in a garage," jokes Settles. "If they can't market their way out of a paper bag, where are the subscriptions and advertising going to come from? Without marketing, the network is a sham."

Another factor to think about is the bigger picture. Hotspots in cafes and airports the world over have been struggling with letting users roam without paying extra charges. Cities with Wi-Fi will have that same worry (especially if they don't offer free service). EarthLink may eventually want to unwire 10 or 20 cities, not just Anaheim, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans, and they'll want to preserve compatibility between the networks.

"Even though the bulk of community and business users aren't mobile, there's an element that will be mobile between cities... they'll want some level of reliability from place to place," says Settles. "There's a bigger picture of reliability of connectivity."

And does your municipal wireless network even need to be Wi-Fi? Does existing EV-DO or HSDPA 3G technology cover what the populace needs? Is it possible the city might be better served with fiber, or WiMax, or a hybrid of all of the above? Don't get locked into just one technology option. Vendors may want to stick with only one -- it's easier that way, of course -- and maybe that makes sense if they're paying for the whole deployment, but Settles says funding options are "more than black and white of 'city pays' or 'vendor pays.' Many cities too quickly will say, 'We don't want to pay for it.' That locks out certain options by default... grants, Homeland Security funds for public safety, maybe state funds, legislative funds earmarked for local areas if it's used to facilitate communications." Don't become encumbered with the money issue up front just to avoid the political fall-out of someone accusing your municipality of using taxpayer cash.

Some of the best advice Settles thinks he can give cities is to talk with other cities. Unlike vendors, which have their competitive secrets, he says the CIOs of cities can and will share their tales of woe and success. Shows like MuniWireless or next week's Metro DC Muni-Wireless Showcase at WCA 2006 are a good start. Community and business groups can also take the lead by making municipal governments listen.

You can download Settles's latest snapshot report for free at Successful.com.