Depending on who you listen to, municipal wireless systems will improve local economies and aid the disenfranchised, or are a waste of time and taxpayer resources.
But all participants on two separate panels at the US Interop trade show about municipal wireless networks agreed on one thing: Getting a municipal Wi-Fi system off the ground is a long, winding road and, so far, the results are unclear.
The first key issue, both city officials and providers agreed, is trying to match the city's needs and the provider's capabilities. And vendors must sometimes educate communities, one panellist said.
"The key point is assessing the needs of the community," said Drew Lentz, wireless mesh architect for technology vendor MESHtek. "Make sure they understand how much bandwidth they'll need now and how much they'll need as the network grows and make sure the network fits their scale. It's frustrating to promise Wi-Fi that ends up being the speed of dial-up."
Beyond that, vendors and one US city official described a complex path of regulations, politics and shifting needs that must be traversed before a municipal network can be a success.
One city's story
The US city of Charlotte has long been attracted to a municipal network, but the pieces have yet to fall into place to make the project viable, according to Susan Johnson, an executive with the city's Business Support Services department.
"We've been looking at Wi-Fi for a long, long time," she said. "We look at these things from two perspectives: Will it provide a return to the community, and will it help the government? Everything we do has to have a business case."
The problem, Johnson said, was that, although the city was approached by a number of vendors, some of whom made very attractive offers, it has been difficult to create a business case for municipal Wi-Fi. None of the common justifications for muni Wi-Fi pertain to Charlotte, she said.
"We have a lot of broadband access and we have a lot of Wi-Fi in Charlotte," she said. "And we don't have an initiative to address the digital divide." By that, she meant that one goal of municipal Wi-Fi projects in some cities is to provide Internet access to the underprivileged. However, a study in Charlotte found that 75 percent of the entire population already had regular Web access.
Nor did the city want an outside vendor to manage wireless used by public safety agencies such as the police, Johnson said. That, too, is a common reason cities embark on municipal Wi-Fi projects.
"We don't trust the private sector to manage public safety traffic," Johnson said. "All our discussions with vendors break down when we start talking about service levels. They'll talk price point and coverage, but when I'd say we need three-nines (99.9 percent uptime) and would prefer five, they'd turn green and get up and leave the table."
Another justification — that municipal wireless attracts business — also didn't hold water for Charlotte, according to Johnson. She said there's been no evidence that companies have refused to locate there because of a lack of a metro wireless network.
Currently, Charlotte is investigating whether to work with various institutions, such as hospitals and the US University of North Carolina, Charlotte campus, to provide public Wi-Fi, but those discussions have yet to bear fruit, she said.
"What you're seeing in Charlotte is that there are a lot of ways to get Wi-Fi," Johnson concluded.
Politics and government snafus
While cities need a strong business case for a large-scale wireless project, vendors on the panels said it often is unattractive for them to get involved because it isn't always easy to deal with local governments. However, Charlotte's Johnson said that shouldn't necessarily be the case.
"Vendors see the local government as a greaser of the wheels and that is one of the things government can do if the deal is the right one," Johnson said.
Greasing the wheels can mean giving access to publicly owned utility poles on which to place the wireless equipment and providing a core set of users, such as specific governmental agencies, to guarantee a revenue stream to the vendors, she said.
However, one wireless broadband vendor said that the maze of laws and politics often means it isn't worth their while to pursue this line of business.
"We've shied away from it because of the process you have to go through," said Jonathan Snyder, CEO of KeyOn Communications, a US-based wireless broadband provider.
Then, there are the endless implementation details, vendors on the panels said.
"You have to understand everybody's perspective and whether the stars align or not," said Craig Newman, market development manager for Motorola. "You need to consider what's available, where you're going and what applications you need to run in your city."
Panellists gave a partial list of the variables and issues that vendors must face.
"Who owns the [utility] poles, the city or the utility?" Newman asked. That's important because wireless mesh equipment typically is mounted on utility poles. If the city owns the poles, will they try to raise revenue by charging too much? If the utility owns the poles, will they allow access at all?
Then, there's the combination of politics and public policy, Newman said.
"We get crazy ordnances like you only get one antenna on a mesh access point," Newman said. "It's an aesthetic concern, but every mesh product I know has two antennas. Another is a $US43,000 fee for each base station (Hundreds, if not thousands, can be required for a large installation). I don't know how that [particular municipality] figured that price out. I know cities are looking for revenue, but that's not a way to get it."
Other panellists, however, said that municipal networks are viable for vendors, although it takes time and patience.
"We go out there and talk with city officials," said Roxanne White, general manager for Evertek, a US wireless service provider. "We got to know people like the police chief. One of the biggest things we found is that officer safety is the highest priority. Then, we talk about what else the city can use it for. Then, we talk about business plans."
Business plans for municipal wireless networks are still evolving, all the panellists agreed, and no single way is best in all cases. That uncertainty about business plans creates yet another level of complexity both for vendors and cities, which must decide how they want to finance the network, the panellists said.
In the end, the panellists said that there is no cookie-cutter approach to muni Wi-Fi but, rather, cities and vendors must start fresh with each installation to figure out the best way to approach the technology and the business aspects.
David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.
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