Wi-Fi, WiMAX or Wi-not?

Former IT leader of Grand Rapids, Mich., shares lessons learned from a wireless rollout.

IT projects are like weeds in the yard: No matter how hard you try, they just keep springing up to ruin the landscape. Let me share with you a plan for a successful wireless broadband project that requires political savvy, business sense, futuristic technology, leadership, and a little thing I like to refer to as “uncommon sense”. Many IT projects suffer from project creep. Wireless deployments are big, risky ventures. It’s imperative to have a business model that states the reasons you’re embarking on a wireless broadband project for the government and community you serve. State, in order of priority, which applications you hope to address.

Do you know about “advertiser” supported models, “free” models, “anchor tenant” models, and “public/private partnership” models? Research what others are doing around the country to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Be sure to hype your project to anyone who will listen. Make sure you tell them that it won’t cost a penny and will also cure the common cold. That’s sure to put your project on the map. You can use the interviews and publicity to secure your next job, because when reality rears its ugly face, you’ll be on everyone’s dartboard.

Take the political pulse of your organization early on. Draft a city/county resolution stating the reasons for the project, its objectives, timelines, and the anticipated cost/benefit. Pay close attention to the questions and body language of the elected to measure your chance of success. A 4-3 vote in favor of a wireless broadband project is not the strong endorsement that you’ll need when the rubber hits the road. What you learn from this phase of the project will help your organization avoid the problems that commonly plague these projects: cost and schedule overruns and failure to meet core requirements.

Now for the best part: Let’s say that you have actually used sound business principles, exercised good (if not great) leadership, and wrestled successfully with attendant politics. Your reward is that you now are totally dependent upon the vendor of choice. Make sure that you select a company that is capable of pulling off all that needs to be done.

Don’t choose a hardware vendor that makes equipment; instead, select a firm that can install, maintain and upgrade the technology. Select a company that can serve your community’s customers well. Make sure it has taken the time to survey the landscape and is community-aware, and that it can handle inevitable problems and resolve issues swiftly.

You now have arrived at the conclusion that this wireless broadband project is less about technology and more about having the right vendor and people in place to make the project successful. Should you ever forget why you began all this in the first place, remind yourself that it was about using technology to better serve the citizen and improve internal efficiencies.

Here is where “uncommon sense” comes in. Relying on common sense will lead you to believe that you are in control. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recognize that, with all the shortcomings technology has, you must use unconventional wisdom to do what others have failed to do successfully—and keep a smile on your face.

You can’t promise a free network. There isn’t a technology firm around that makes a living by giving away their services. It’s better to acknowledge this up front than to ignore it. Hopefully, you’ve learned a valuable lesson: When dealing with wireless broadband, align yourself with quality people, a reputable vendor or two, and keep your “uncommon sense” when others fail to do so.

Dec 03 2007