OKC Gets Muni Wi-Fi Right

Proving the old adage that “slow and steady wins the race,” Oklahoma City, OK scored a quiet victory recently with the official launch of its city-wide Wi-Fi network, which it believes is the largest Wi-Fi network built for municipal use in the world.

Unveiled June 3rd, the wireless network covers a 555 square-mile area of the city’s 621 square miles. Rather than offering access to the public, either via “bridge the digital divide” initiatives that offer free or discounted Wi-Fi to low-income residents, or by charging as an ISP, OKC has focused its efforts on providing access to government employees and running municipal applications—a formula that has met with success.

Safety first

Police officers in the city of roughly 529,000 people are now equipped with laptops in patrol cars, which can wirelessly access vital information about crime scenes in real time. They can also download photos, file reports, and do paperwork in the field, thus improving efficiency and accuracy.

According to Mark Meier, IT Director for the City of Oklahoma City, approximately 3,000 municipal employees using roughly 1,200 devices routinely access the Wi-Fi network, and within the urban center of OKC (roughly 225 square miles), coverage is at 95 percent. Of the 230-square miles of rural Oklahoma City, Meier says his team has achieved 95% coverage along all of the major roadways, allowing municipal workers and first responders to have reliable access en route to a call or job site, as well as whenever they are within range of a major artery.


“The concept of getting data communications to your police and fire units, it’s ubiquitous,” says Meier. “The emergency response teams—police and fire—would be able to respond to calls more effectively with fewer mistakes on addressing and immediate access to the calling party.”

The impetus for the network came not from a desire to provide city-wide Wi-Fi to the residents of Oklahoma City, but rather from a need to update an aging 911 system.

“We needed to replace our 20-year-old system,” says Meier. “We had the option of saying, ‘we’ll put in the traditional in-car replacement, about 19.2 baud, shared among 500 users,’ or we can offer something else that provides tremendous value. This [Wi-Fi solution] replaces technology that was more expensive and gives a wide variety of options.”

Dollar for dollar 

In order to fund its “city owned and operated” Wi-Fi network, the City of Oklahoma City took a unique approach, one that has worked well for the city with other projects—it instituted a sales tax increase devoted to capital improvement.

“This was one piece of an overall public safety sales tax designed to upgrade police, fire, and the courts information systems. One small piece was the wireless component that made all of these pieces viable,” says Meier.

To fund the upgrades, the citizens of Oklahoma City voted in a half-cent increase in their sales tax.

“We do these fairly often,” says Meier. “The city approaches it with a limited duration sales tax to do a specific project or series of projects. That’s leant itself to our success. Our citizens have watched us succeed and then [the tax] goes away.”

Despite having been the site of a devastating terrorist attack—the deadliest act of domestic terror in the history of the U.S.—the Oklahoma City project received only a small bit of ancillary funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We received no funding from Homeland Security,” says Meier, “but projects are running across the network. For instance, a 300-camera CCTV network used by the field officers runs across our Wi-Fi system and was partly funded by Homeland Security dollars.”


United we stand

Meier credits the success of the network in large part to the commitment of the Mayor and the city council.

“The Mayor and the Council—in all honesty—that’s the differential I see with the cities that failed. We never had divisiveness, changes of scope occurring in the middle, pet projects being put forward. Like any group of people, they had different desires for the system, but they came together so we could have a clear vision of what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ve had several changes in administration [since the planning began six years ago], but in my memory, we have always had a very strong and cooperative and focused city council,” says Meier.

Reaping the rewards

Initially, a budget of $5 million was allocated to the project, before Wi-Fi was selected as the solution of choice. Meier estimates the ongoing operational expenses to be about $200,000 per year, which was lower than the planners had originally anticipated. Meier says that his city has spent its money well.

“Compared to other technologies that we would have implemented, this product was less expensive,” says Meier. “We feel there is a tremendous value. This replaces technology that was more expensive and gives a wide variety of options.”

The specific savings and benefits are hard to quantify dollar-for-dollar, says Meier, but the list of rewards is long.

“They can book a prisoner out in the field and fill out a report one time in the field and have it replicated; they can verify if an individual is wanted or innocent of what he might be accused of. The officer in the field has a reduced amount of time and liability, and better information to make decisions.”

In a city where police can expect to dispatch more than 400,000 calls a year—in FY 06/07 441,890 calls to 911 were dispatched—Meier says the new system can shave 30 minutes to an hour off each call. The fire department also benefits in many ways, including the ability to get a building’s blueprint en route to a fire, or a schematic of how the water system is laid out. And the department of public works is using the Wi-Fi network to handle inspection requests.

“They used to take a call, put in a log, it would be centralized and then get put into a system and a day or two later, they might respond. Now the inspector goes out, goes into the field, and it gets entered into the system on the following day. Contractors used to have to wait until the inspection was complete. Now you have inspectors upload reports immediately to a Web site. Within hours contractors can go back to work. It saves days off every construction project. It’s a tremendous value to our community,” says Meier.

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 Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.

Nuts and bolts

Oklahoma City’s network is constructed primarily out of Tropos Networks’ equipment. “Tropos manufactured the heart of the Wi-Fi system,” says Meier. “They are the creators of what made it possible. Other vendors provided components.”

According to Meier, there are 1,200 Tropos 802.11b/g APs across the 555-square-mile area served by the network.

“They are fixed nodes,” says Meier, “and also a mobile mesh. All of the police and fire—850 of them—they can talk to each other and if any one of them can find an uplink for data then it can use that to get it up. In a rural area with ten or fifteen or twenty vehicles dealing with an incident, they can join together and create a much larger mesh. We even take it one step further and provide a mobile platform for a low-power handheld that can talk to the car and the car can take the feed upstream to the fixed network.”

“The fixed mesh are primarily 5210s and 5320s with dual radios. The mobile units are 4210s,” says Meier.

He doesn’t anticipate upgrading to 802.11n any time soon. “The network is doing what we asked it to do and we have plenty of capacity, so it’s not something we’re looking at,” he says.

Meier and his team chose Tropos after a conscientious review of all available options, including cell providers. “Tropos was one of the few people at the time that could do it. We looked at all the vendors we could find. It was an arduous process. We went into a lot of detail before choosing Tropos. We were working on this network in 2002-2003, before Wi-Fi was a gleam in most people’s eyes,” he says.

Once the planning and funding were in place, it took Meier and his team roughly two years to deploy. Currently, more than 150 applications are running over the network.

In terms of security, multiple layers are in place, including a basic VPN client along with additional layers of encryption,  and restrictions for users and devices. “There is also additional security between the devices themselves,” says Meier.

Every Wi-Fi deployment faces specific challenges related to overcoming the local terrain. In Oklahoma City, there is not much of an elevation change to worry about, but, says Meier, “we have hills and foliage. Any city—I don’t care what your geography is—you’ll have to plan how to overcome issues, like a row of 20-40-story buildings, large houses, foliage, mountains. Wee have hundreds of those types of issues. We came up with a design solution and implemented it. Fortunately. Wi-Fi is very resilient. Once you got the hang of it, you could come up with any solution for anything you’re facing.”

While a handful of other U.S. municipalities have had to cope with fears from residents about the health effects of city-wide Wi-Fi, Meier says that never came up in Oklahoma City.

“We received very few comments or concerns about health risks,” he says. “I guess it’s prevalent now, so most people are familiar with it. Very few—one or two—were worried about the network being used to spy on citizens. With video surveillance, some thought that Wi-Fi might give the ability to monitor activities.”

On the horizon

While the network is not currently being used for “digital divide” programs or Internet access for the public, Meier says that it may be put to that use at some time in the future.

“It wasn’t that we decided not to, it was that we decided our priority was to make sure it performed for its intended purpose,” says Meier. “We did not want to over extend it. It’s designed to support public access and we review that use on a regular basis. To date we have decided not to open it up. But in the future, we could address social divide issues.”

Other future applications include weather monitoring, meter reading, and traffic monitoring.

“We are working with our local University of Oklahoma climatology division,” says Meier. “They came up with an idea to use Mesonet, a weather monitoring mechanism, integrated with our Wi-Fi system to provide to the National Weather Service this level of detail of climate information immediately available. It’s the first time in the world—we can predict tornadoes, we can also protect against damage from hazardous materials release because we know which way the wind is blowing. It’s currently operational now [June 4] and will be rolling out in pieces over the next 90 days.”

Meier says the City is also considering putting some of its significant intersections online.

“It would result in a fuel savings to our citizens,” says Meier, “because of Wi-Fi, we were able to make the proposal that you could communicate with 20-30 stop lights. You can put them all online and then you can change the timing of the intersection based on traffic flow. If you have an event like a basketball game, you can get people out of the area more quickly, reducing emissions overall. I suspect it’ll be accepted, then we’ll implement the entire city in a dynamic system at a fraction of the cost of what it would be otherwise.”

Because the network is scaleable, Meier says the only limit is money. “Wi-Fi mesh is, by its nature, extremely resilient and completely scaleable. If any area suddenly develops a more intense need, we can add APs and inject more capacity,” says Meier.

As other municipal networks are failing, Meier is proud of the careful planning and patient approach his city took to its Wi-Fi endeavor. As cities that focused on providing free or cheap city-wide Wi-Fi are floundering, Meier’s network is robust, well-funded, and thriving.

“We saw those models; we preceded those models. We started before the industry started with this concept of we’d get something for nothing,” says Meier. “We didn’t have to deal with the issues the other companies had to deal with. Our Council had a vision and knew exactly what they wanted. That made it very effective for us. The model was viable from the very beginning based solidly on expectations of cost versus value of the system we were trying to create.”


Naomi Graychase is Managing Editor at Wi-FiPlanet.

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