October 24, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Cities themselves may be muni Wi-Fi's savior

Cities that commit to using new Wi-Fi networks for their own use could help rescue the ailing citywide Wi-Fi movement.

Like many new technology initiatives, citywide Wi-Fi has been overhyped. In less than two years, the technology--which provides inexpensive Internet access by using unlicensed wireless spectrum and cheap, industry standard equipment--has gone from savior to sunken ship.

But the truth is that blanketing cities with Wi-Fi signals is not inherently a bad idea. Even though some projects have stalled or failed outright, there have also been several success stories. Cities such as Minneapolis, Houston, Burbank, Calif., and Tucson, Ariz., are moving forward and seeing early signs of success.

One of the common threads weaved through each of these deployments is that all of these cities have committed to using the Wi-Fi networks for their own purposes whether it be to provide remote access for mobile city workers, automate meter reading, control traffic congestion or enhance public safety.

"The cities themselves need to have some skin in the game," said Ken Biba, managing director at Novarum, a consulting firm that independently tests wireless broadband networks. "Someone needs to take ownership of the project to make sure it happens and is done right. There needs to be accountability. And this means that cities either need to put up some money themselves or actually use the network to deliver some kind of mission critical application or service."

"Cities either need to put up some money themselves or actually use the network to deliver some kind of mission critical application or service."
-- Ken Biba,
wireless consultant

For example, in Minneapolis the city has used Wi-Fi to create a new state of the art public safety network. The network was put to the test earlier this year in the aftermath of a major bridge collapse. The network withstood the emergency very well and provided emergency responders and the general public with a communications network.

In Burbank, the city's water and power utility plans to use Wi-Fi to remotely read and manage meters. The city not only hopes to enable employees to access the meters remotely, but it also plans to allow customers to log in to check their own power and water usage. As an incentive for meeting conservation goals, the city also plans to offer citizens free Wi-Fi access. The project is all part of an initiative to reduce energy use and greenhouse emissions.

The city of Houston, which earlier this year fined EarthLink $5 million for failing to meet deadlines for building its citywide Wi-Fi network, has already built and uses a wireless meter-reading network in part of the city. The wireless solution, which includes 750 parking meters outfitted with Wi-Fi radios, allows for secure credit card authorizations. Janis Jefferson Benton, deputy IT director for the City of Houston, said during a presentation at the MuniWireless conference in Santa Clara, Calif., that the network has delivered a return on investment in six months.

The success of the project has prompted Houston officials to explore roughly 30 different wireless efforts.

Tucson has deployed a 227-square-mile "emergency room link" between ambulance paramedics and the University Medical Center in Tucson, Francisco Leyva, a project manager for the City of Tucson, said during MuniWireless. Sixteen ambulances use video cameras to send feeds to area hospitals.

Tucson is also using Wi-Fi to manage its traffic signals and the city is testing applications that can be used by the police department, transportation field workers, and building inspectors. It also plans to set up video surveillance cameras.

CONTINUED: Cities take a vested interest…
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Of course!
You see, the problem is that Americans have too much money, and
we need the government to take a bit more of it. Politicians always
know how to spend our money better than we do.
Posted by nicmart (1829 comments )
Reply Link Flag
We're from the government, and we're here to help!
Just like every other government program it will not work as well as first thought. It's a matter of time before people start complaining about the outdated infrastructure, some neighborhoods getting better signals than other etc.

And it's a matter of time before everyone is forced to pay a city-wide wifi tax, even if I choose to go with a private provider, not to mention when some left-winger feels that the "wealthy" should pay for everyone else's internet service.
Posted by nyte3k (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Did you check your facts at all?
"the technology--which provides inexpensive Internet access by using unlicensed wireless spectrum and cheap, industry standard equipment--has gone from savior to sunken ship."

That whole statement reeks of inexperience and or a sell out to the people who want this to happen.

I can say this because I work for a city IT department and we use wireless. The technology is expensive, you can't just use some basic radio that you buy at office Depot. The antennas have to be mounted up high in difficult places which requires professionals in that arena. Then you have to get to them when they have problems! Once you consider the maintenance and support to keep it up this become very expensive.

The Install is very complex because the spectrum is unlicensed. Any Joe can put an antenna up right next to yours, interfere with your signal, and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.

Wireless is a radio signal and unless you have someone on your staff who understands noise, refraction, interference, and a host of other radio engineering know how, you are out of luck. So be prepared to increase you employee cost or hire a contractor because you are going to need a radio engineer before you are done.

Lastly it's a fad technology,. I bet in the next ten years after investing millions (because that is what it is going to cost your tax payers) something else is going to come along and or the big players will take over. It's already happening with mobile broadband. Why invest in a limited homemade wireless network when you can use a mobile broadband card anywhere in the country. As far as the meters go I'm sure they will be coming out with ones that work with the broadband market, if they haven't done so already.

I'm sure some of these city's have it working but I'd be interested in see just how much their taxes go up to support this.
Posted by Arrgster (92 comments )
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This is one of those rare times...
... where a story's comment is more informative and interesting than the story itself. Great comment, arrgster
Posted by shoffmueller (236 comments )
Link Flag
It is a good idea, just not mature enough.
A wireless network infrastructure is a good idea. But the comparatively short range of WiFi does not lend itself to this type of wide spread application. What needs to happen is a new longer range, open, unlicensed usage wireless device and protocol standard be established for the 700MHz band that FCC is going to sell to the highest bidder. Write your congressman, and the FCC. Do not let them sell this band to some big telco, or anyone, it belongs to all of us, it needs to be free to all to use.
A wireless device and protocol standard capable of routing based upon physical location (GPS addressing) can be 100% fault tolerant, completely dynamic topology, if a unit fails or a power outage occurs the units can still route data around such failures using shortest or most efficient path, based upon units still in operation. Security and Privacy can be protected partly using the GPS signals which can not be falsified in the real world, such that only a unit physically located at the intended destination location can decode the signal intended for that unit.
Why should we pay, and pay, and pay for services and capabilities that devices themselves can provide, for a one time cost. With this type of wireless mesh network, there is no network infrastructure to maintain, just hub units (that provide your service) and devices that connect to them.
The longer range capability of the 700MHz band lends itself to this application perfectly. The model could be expanded to include nearly the entire EM spectrum, such that it could be dynamically allocated and managed by the FCC, even by geographic region (a capability they do not have now), through an update service to frequency mapping tables. The standard could include a legacy clause, to not use frequencies it detects legacy signals on, and/or transcode and repeat legacy signals like standard Broadcast Radio to remote locations upon request, providing a complete backwards compatible transition from old high power analog broadcast, to new low power digital routing on demand.
As long as hub units (that provide an individuals service) can carry and route several times what the single user can consume, we would never run out of bandwidth, nor addresses. The network would be able to grow, and never be outgrown. (Example: 1 Hub provides the user with 1 100MB/sec pipe, but the hub can route many times that number of pipes at that bandwidth)

The fact of a EM band being unlicensed is not what makes it complex, the complexity of not walking on anothers signal, and auto negotiating connections can be embedded in the device itself through implementation of the proposed standard. Such that the devices are truly plug and play.

This is the other short coming of WiFi, the access points are not designed to connect to each other automatically to pool resources, and not transmit on the same channel at the same time, etc. Those hub units are autonomous, and were not designed to work together. This would be a new system of hub units designed to, and must work together. Then you don't need a Radio Tech, and you could put up hub antennas anywhere you want.
Posted by chash360 (394 comments )
Link Flag
Municipal Wi-Fi not a winner
Muni Wi-Fi has a big problem. Short range. I live in a city that has Metro-fi wi-fi access, and even in areas where they are covered, often you still can't get coverage. The signal is too weak, and the transmitters too far apart. In order to be truly effective, it needs to be damn near on every other light pole.
Posted by KevMorris (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Coverage is important
You are absolutely right. Access points need to be deployed in very high density. Ken Biba of Novarum suggests a city needs to deploy at least 40 access points per square mile for decent coverage. Sometimes more could be needed. Also new 802.11n equipment should also help boost signal strength. Of course deploying more access points means more money has to be spent, which is why the city must be an active "customer" to demand that the service provider or whoever is paying for the network actually installs an adequate number of access points. But at the end of the day, even though more access points will drive up costs for building the network, it is still way less than laying fiber throughout a city.
Posted by MaggieReardon (140 comments )
Link Flag
Wi-Fi is way cheaper than cell tech and laying fiber
Setting up Wi-Fi access points is way cheaper than acquiring spectrum licenses and setting up cellular towers. It's also a lot cheaper than laying fiber all over the place. So by comparison, Wi-Fi is cheap. Of course, it's not free.
Posted by MaggieReardon (140 comments )
Reply Link Flag
700MHz Band Needs to be unlicensed
If the FCC would retract its plans to sell the 700MHz band and instead setup a device and protocol standard for this band, then it could do what they are trying to accomplish with WiFi. The 700MHz band has much longer range capability, yet high enough for 'broadbandwidth' type access. Please read my other post and write your congressman and the FCC. Do not sell the 700MHz band. We could all have wireless comminication that is service fee free, without ever outgrowing this type of network.
Posted by chash360 (394 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Unlicensed 700Mhz doesn't make any sense
The 700MHz spectrum that is being auctioned off by the FCC propagates over long distances and is able to penetrate through objects, which makes it terrific for broadcast. This is why the TV industry has used it for over 50 years to transmit over the air TV around the country. But because of these propagation characteristics it can easily intefere with other signals being broadcast in close proximity. That's why TV broadcasters can't transmit signals in the same channel. Even adjacent channels can interfere with each other. So in essence, unlicensed 700Mhz would be useless because there would be way too much interference. By contrast, Wi-Fi transmits at a higher frequency-2.4GHz-and its range is short distances, so it's easier to manage the interference. I hope this helps.
Posted by MaggieReardon (140 comments )
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