City-wide wireless broadband undeniably means different things to different people. Similar to a Rorschach inkblot test, ask one city what benefit it sees in a wireless network and the response will differ from the next. With varying needs and wish lists to take into account, a standard method for launching a municipal wireless network has yet to serve as a model. But make no mistake about it – wireless broadband has broken into the mainstream, driven by an increasingly connected and mobile public, which has rapidly deemed wireless a necessity.
Today there are numerous applications, technologies and business models that a municipality must consider when deploying a city-wide wireless broadband network.
The View from the Driver’s Seat
An important objective in blanketing a city with wireless broadband connectivity is to fulfill its specific networking needs efficiently and cost-effectively. Deploying a single network that seamlessly provides connectivity to public safety, public works, public access, tourists, transportation, and business users is ideal.
With the right combination of technology and applications, cities can drive economic development and transform communities. Municipal wireless broadband enables the streamlining of public service and improved workforce productivity, digital inclusion, and enhanced public safety – all while dramatically lowering telecommunications costs and generating revenue.
Clearly, the potential uses for and benefits of a wireless network are almost as diverse as the cities using them (roughly 340 U.S. cities and counties as reported by Muniwireless.com). Deciding where to start can be overwhelming indeed, so each individual municipality must begin by first identifying their unique needs, parameters and goals.
If You Build It, Municipalities Will Come
Each municipality plans for a wireless network based on a unique set of initiatives. Quite often, a specific application already exists – or is in the process of being built – which can fulfill these goals. Applications that increase productivity, serve as public safety force multipliers, or enhance government services undeniably become a driving force behind a deployment. Here is a glimpse at just a few specific examples of such applications:
- From their ‘mobile office,’ first responders can view and control surveillance cameras to assess an incident in real time, monitor suspects and track personnel via in-vehicle laptops or handheld devices. Moreover, officers can access mug shot and criminal databases, field reporting tools, Amber Alerts, and other mission critical applications, all while maintaining their presence in the field.
- Public works personnel can enable automated meter reading, remotely access SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) applications to gather data in real time from remote locations to control equipment and conditions and utilize web-based systems to immediately respond to residents’ requests to fill a pothole or fix a malfunctioning streetlight.
- Residents can enjoy wireless access anytime, anywhere – even from public transit.
Establishing Clear-Cut Roles
In addition to evaluating available applications and technologies, municipalities must assess existing business models based on their specific funding (tax revenues, grants, private capital, usage fees, advertising, etc.), IT resources and support needs. Time and experience has encouraged a variety of models to emerge, the most prevalent of which include:
A) Private – Owned and operated by the municipality or an integrator (e.g., Providence, RI.).
B) Public – Service provider owned and operated, some support multiple ISPs in a wholesale model which can become a significant revenue generator for the municipality (e.g., Philadelphia, PA).
C) Hybrid – Municipalities partner with a private entity or entities often splitting the costs amongst the parties involved (e.g., San Francisco, CA).
Note that service providers are not only deploying more networks and adopting a variety of different business models, they are increasingly engaging in collaborative agreements with municipalities looking to set up wireless networks. Ultimately, establishing a sustainable business model for all parties involved (municipalities, service providers, integrators, and vendors) is central to a network’s success by ensuring that everyone shares investment and risk in an equitable manner, while meeting end users’ needs.
Is Free Wi-Fi Dead?
Money doesn’t grow on trees, and neither does wireless connectivity – making the concept of free Wi-Fi unnerving to many municipalities. Nevertheless, connecting the unconnected in order to bridge the digital divide at an affordable rate, if not for free, is a significant undertaking and remains one of the chief incentives to build a wireless network. Currently, cities such as Tempe, Arizona; San Francisco; Kissimmee, Florida; and Macon, Georgia are all investing in free city-wide Internet access for their residents, tourists, and local businesses. Through creative methods and by leveraging public safety and government agencies as anchor tenants, cities can achieve cost savings as a result of increased productivity and efficiencies. In this manner, cities can balance and outweigh financial returns on investment (ROIs) and still provide wireless broadband access for residents.
Los Angeles, for example, is using a multi-radio meshed broadband solution to provide wireless connectivity to its Jordan Downs housing complex. The city intends to curb criminal activity and provide a safer environment while also enabling public access for residents and local schools. The resulting cost savings from improved interagency collaboration, increased presence within the community, and decreased response times is benefiting the entire community while simultaneously allowing its residents to move forward in the digital age.
Making the Right Choice
A wireless network is undoubtedly a large investment – but municipalities can better justify the network’s value to their stakeholders by considering solutions that offer versatility and high growth potential. In conjunction with a sustainable business model, municipalities can guarantee the network’s long-term viability and scalability.
To do so, it has become increasingly important to consider comprehensive, end-to-end solutions that combine all of the components needed to plan, set up, and maintain a wireless network (i.e., backhaul, point-to-point, network planning software, devices, etc.) that can eventually meet the needs of all constituent groups.
As a result, the needs of every party are taken into consideration – from an individual’s need for ease-of-use and access that is always available to a system engineer’s need for flexible design to an administrator’s desire for easy installation, high security and faster deployment.
By selecting evolutionary wireless broadband technologies designed to easily integrate into and grow with a municipality’s network (as needs will inevitably change), municipalities can expand their networks to accommodate bandwidth-intensive mobile applications, additional users, next-generation technologies like WiMAX, and even industry standards as they become ratified.
Seeking a Trusted Guide
With varying business models, applications, technologies and unique needs to consider, municipalities are often overwhelmed by the thought of planning for and maintaining a wireless network. Yet, municipalities can rely on vendors who have broad experience in outdoor wireless networks to guide them through this process.
Municipalities can gain valuable insight by researching other deployments and speaking with other jurisdictions about their unique experiences and needs. Ultimately, municipalities should seek to apply lessons learned on what has worked and what hasn’t – enabling them to effectively harness the power of wireless broadband today.
Brian Carlson is the Senior Director of Motorola’s Worldwide Municipal Wireless Group.