October 24, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Cities themselves may be muni Wi-Fi's savior
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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."
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.
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