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Cities themselves may be muni Wi-Fi's savior

Municipalities that plan to use new Wi-Fi networks being built in their cities will likely drive future growth of the citywide Wi-Fi movement.

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 , 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.

In many cases, cities are partnering with service providers in the private sector to build these Wi-Fi networks. While these partnerships may make economic sense because they alleviate some of the capital burden from cities, Biba believes that cities must still keep a vested interest in the networks to ensure that they are a success.

For example, he believes that cities acting as anchor tenants or customers of the service are in a good position to demand that the service provider building the network put in enough access points to ensure adequate coverage.

"If the anchor tenant is the police department, then you better have a chief of police who is in the vendor's or service provider's face demanding a quality service," he said. "That is the one thing all these success stories have in common. Someone has taken ownership because the service that is being delivered is essential."

Despite delayed or sidelined projects in cities like San Francisco or Chicago, the citywide Wi-Fi market is still moving forward. In fact, MuniWireless' State of the Market Report 2007 predicts that the market will still grow at least 33 percent compared to 2006.

In total, cities are expected to spend more than $329 million this year on citywide Wi-Fi deployments, according to the report published this week. And by 2010, spending is expected to exceed $900 million. The report is based on a survey of 163 U.S. municipal networks that are either already up and running or are scheduled for deployment within the next 36 months.

While these figures are lower than what was predicted a year ago before EarthLink scaled back plans to build several new networks, it still shows a steady growth curve, said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.

"Despite some setbacks, the market has continued to grow by strong percentages," she said in a press release. "The bottom line is that networks that are up and running are delivering real, tangible value to their communities and decision makers are generally quite satisfied with the positive impact of these networks on government operations in particular."

While much of the early hype surrounding citywide Wi-Fi focused on free and consumer-based Internet access, the report notes that much of the growth in the next few years comes from networks being built for city use. For example, cities will use networks for public safety to enhance police and fire department communications, provide remote meter reading for utilities, or offer paid Internet access services to small businesses with mobile workers.

But some cities, such as San Francisco, . And other cities, such as Los Angeles, which is currently assessing whether to build a Wi-Fi network, say they hope to combine city-based use with public access for citizens.

Los Angeles is already using Wi-Fi to transmit video surveillance feeds in certain neighborhoods. Mark Wolf, assistant general manager for IT for the City of Los Angeles, said during a panel discussion this week at MuniWireless that he believes Los Angeles will use Wi-Fi for a wide range of applications.

"Improving government efficiency is important," he said. "But so is using the technology to improve economic development and promote digital inclusion. We have the benefit of watching and learning from other cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco and our close neighbor Anaheim. So we are taking a hard look at all our options to come up with creative models that can be used."

Vos also acknowledged that every city is different. And what works for one may not work for another.

"You can't take a one-size-fits-all approach," she said. "Every city has its own particular needs."