Selling city halls on wireless as a utility

City leaders don't need to be convinced of the benefits of high-bandwidth networks. Convincing them to pay for it is another matter.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
NEWTON, Mass.--At this week's MuniWireless New England conference, leaders in municipal broadband are extolling the benefits of their technology to urban officials. But is the pitch falling on deaf ears?

On Monday morning, "MuniWireless 101" panelists said that high-bandwidth broadband infrastructures become public safety tools for law enforcement and first responders, help alleviate costs for public schools, aid the rising population of telecommuters, back future entertainment for personal computers, and support public wireless networks.

The U.S. isn't exactly in the lead when it comes to building such infrastructures, though. Some at the two-day conference here pointed to Asian countries that compete economically with the U.S., such as India and Malaysia, as being far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to building high-bandwidth broadband infrastructure nationwide.

"Is it happening? Yes. Is it happening in the U.S.? No. I'm sorry to say it's a bloody mess," said Ken DiPietro, the chief technology officer of NextGen Communications.

Access to high-capacity broadband service is one of the benefits of public wireless networks, but there are numerous others. DiPietro said that the popularity of the Joost video-on-demand program, for example, points to an inevitable switch to Internet Protocol television, or IPTV, in lieu of traditional broadcast television and that such a change will put even more strain on broadband networks unless they are built to be upgradeable every three to five years.

Panelists also cited the rise of telecommuting and businesses' increasing use of bandwidth-eating video conferencing technology as justification for municipalities building, or beefing up, wireless networks.

Some uses mentioned were more exotic. Cisco Systems, for example, is offering relatively inexpensive options for telepresence technology, which uses a highly sensitive interface to allow humans to remotely control devices as if they were present at the remote location. But for such a system to work, "you still need the continuous bandwidth to go with it," DiPietro said.

For cash-strapped municipalities, however, the main issue is price.

"I am from a town with 25,000 people. How can we do this for free without using any tax dollars?" asked one municipal leader.

The question provoked a visible smiles and audible sighs among the panelists--and chuckles from the audience. That's because the question embodied one of the issues that the industry is up against: convincing municipalities to invest.

"It comes down to: Do you consider it a service or a utility? I consider it a utility," said Ash Dyer, a researcher at MIT involved in program in Cambridge, Mass., to bring wireless to 95 percent of the city.

Dyer suggested that both companies and municipalities should look at past government models in this instance. He cited the U.S. highway infrastructure built under the Eisenhower administration as one model the federal government should consider adopting.

"They built stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere, between major areas and cities and then told them 'OK, you have to build your stretch if you want to be connected,'" Dyer said.

"As hard as this is going to be, you need to bite the bullet and pay or your town is going to get left behind," DiPietro said. He pointed out that many business plans are set up so that the municipalities do make money from their investment after three years.

Michael Dillon, director of digital communications for IBM, offered a more diplomatic answer.

"Don't try to build it all at once. Poll your citizens and businesses, and see if it's something they are open to investing in," he said.

Panelists said they saw a lack of leadership at the federal level as one of the challenges they face in getting towns and cities interested.

Dillon and DiPietro said the Federal Communications Commission should step up its involvement, while Dyer suggested that a federal department of telecommunications should be established.

"We don't have a federal broadband policy," Dillon said. "It's a lot easier for federally based countries, such as Malaysia, to decree or establish policy."