Cities Achieve a Trifecta of Benefits by Starting Small with Wireless

While some municipal deployments seem to be plagued with problems, a few cities find success.
Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand is blanketing the downtown area with Wi-Fi.

Gordon Bruce, CIO and director of information technology for the city and county of Honolulu, calls August 28, 2007, “Black Friday.” That’s the day that service provider EarthLink said it was folding its municipal Wi-Fi business, leaving city governments that hoped to offer their citizens free wireless access shaken.

Within the next few months, cities coast to coast, including Chicago, San Francisco and Houston, folded up shop on their wireless ventures, saying if they couldn’t have free wireless, they’d go without. Even St. Louis, which had partnered with AT&T, announced in October it was scaling back its Wi-Fi plans. And Boston slowed deployment plans because of technology and fundraising challenges.

But in the wake of all this turmoil, some city governments, such as Grand Rapids, Mich., Honolulu, and Portsmouth, N.H., are pushing forward with their wireless plans and coming out victorious. Already, they have managed to extract some or all of what they see as a trifecta of benefits: the ability to mobilize first responders and other city services; a way to bridge the digital divide in impoverished areas; and a catalyst for an economic boom in business development.

The secret, they say, is to enter into well-thought-out public-private partnerships that keep municipalities from breaking the bank.

Wiring Waikiki

From almost the beginning, Honolulu’s Bruce knew that the EarthLink deal was a bad idea. To carry out Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s 2005 campaign promise to improve the city’s technology and communication systems, he’d need lots of pots on the stove — not a behemoth contract with a single provider.

Bruce wanted to find success in small wins and worried that overreaching would mean failure. He narrowed the contract down to coverage for just Chinatown, an area that had been slated for economic revitalization.

“We spent more than a year drafting our agreement with EarthLink. By the time we were ready to sign all the legal documents, they had made their shift away from free municipal wireless. For us, it was a blessing in disguise not to be tied to one provider. Now we get to innovate,” Bruce says.

In the past year, Bruce has managed to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots across the city, including in four district parks, the commuter boat transportation hub, and Chinatown. He credits collaborations between the city and commercial and nonprofit organizations. For instance, he partnered with service provider Clearwire and Hawaii Open Source Education Foundation, a group that trains teenagers to reconstruct used computers, to put Wi-Fi in the parks.

Next Bruce turned his attention to creating a Wi-Fi mesh network in Chinatown. A local company called Trinet Solutions offered to provide free Internet access and antennas to store owners throughout that area if Bruce and his team would help break the ice. “We go to the store owners with Trinet and ask them if they’ll put antennas in their windows. If they say ‘yes,’ within 15 minutes of plugging the antenna in, there is free wireless up to 750 feet away,” he says. In one month, they were able to cover 11 square blocks, bringing as many as 150 users per day onto the network. “We now see more than 2,000 users per day on the network.”

Bruce is particularly proud of the Chinatown network because he avoided a major snafu that can stop some Wi-Fi plans in their tracks: convincing local utilities to provide access to light poles and traffic signals to mount antennas. “This was way, way cheaper and faster. Also, because of the word of mouth, we’ve been able to quickly expand the network,” he says.

He’s been able to do all these projects without costing the city a dime and without taking on the role of service provider. “We’d do a terrible job; we’re government,” he says of the latter. When asked if it’s difficult to manage so many different relationships, he proudly says, “The more, the merrier.”

Bit by Bit

When Pease Air Force Base closed in the ’90s, the city of Portsmouth, N.H., rebounded by transforming it into a technology park, drawing high-paying jobs to the area. However, this growth pulled business away from the New Hampshire seacoast city’s downtown area.

The Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Economic Development Commission decided a downtown Wi-Fi network with free Internet access would get people out of their offices and into the shops and cafes. “We wanted them to feel they could leave their offices and still stay connected,” says Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand.

But rather than blanketing Portsmouth with Wi-Fi coverage, the city started conservatively in 2003, rolling out a single seasonal kiosk in the downtown area. “Instead of having a ribbon-cutting to commemorate its deployment, we had a wire-cutting,” says Nancy Carmer, economic development program manager for the city.

The wireless kiosk, which comprised an antenna and base station that reached 300 to 500 square feet, was the first effort by the eCoast Wi-Fi Project, an ad hoc partnership between the city, the Chamber of Commerce, and a group of local companies that donated their services.

In addition to providing free Internet access to users, the project was also an effective marketing tool for the city. Users who wanted to hop on the network had to fill out a short survey that generated demographics for business development and tourism.

The next year, eCoast added a kiosk by the waterfront. Carmer says boaters cruising by could also access the network. To keep people from staying logged on all day and diminishing capacity, eCoast programmed the service to drop connections after two hours.

Interest in the network grew rapidly — from 280 users to more than 2,000, which she says was pretty good for a startup seasonal venture — and other companies wanted to help expand it to a year-round enterprise.

In 2007, the state presented a $10,000 grant to the eCoast Wi-Fi Project team to continue to build out the network. Marchand says Phase One of the expansion will cover the entire downtown area, while Phase Two will push coverage to the outskirts.

Marchand, who happens to be the youngest mayor in the state at 33, says he is happy to see wireless access taking center stage in Portsmouth. “Over the past few years, the bar has been set higher as to what residents, businesses and visitors are expecting in terms of Internet access in our city. And we plan to meet and exceed those expectations,” he says.

Leapfrogging to WiMAX

Unlike in Honolulu and Portsmouth, the primary goal in deploying wireless in Grand Rapids, Mich., was to improve public safety.

“We have 19.2Kbps radio communications between dispatch and first-responder vehicles. This is not adequate for doing Amber alerts, field reports, hazardous-material research or even accessing floor plans — all the things that public safety needs to do these days,” says Tom McQuillan, former director of IT for the city.

Clearwire, a wireless broadband service provider in Kirkland, Wash., pitched the Michigan city on mobile WiMAX, which has a stronger signal and is better at penetrating vegetation and other interference that can vex Wi-Fi systems.

“WiMAX is definitely the future of this industry,” says McQuillan, who retired and launched Quill Consulting.

Once city officials agreed on the technology, they turned their attention to the contract. Grand Rapids did not want to put Clearwire in a position like the one EarthLink faced, where they would find the business model so unprofitable they’d back out.

So in its RFP, the city promised to put $100,000 into research and development, which the chosen partner would pay back. “We didn’t want to burden the taxpayers, and this type of commitment lets you know if you’re playing with someone serious. Within 30 days of choosing Clearwire as a partner, we received a check from them,” he says.

McQuillan says that Grand Rapids also avoided another common trap — contracting to be an anchor tenant for the service. In fact, Clearwire will pay the city its going rate for mounting assets. At the end of the year, if the city’s use of the WiMAX network exceeds the mounting asset fees, Clearwire will pay the city the difference so that the network stays cost-neutral for Grand Rapids.

Although public safety was the main driver for the mobile WiMAX system, which will be rolled out by the first half of the year, McQuillan says there are several applications for the technology. “Anyone whose job is out there in the field — assessors, appraisers, public-works employees — will benefit from WiMAX,” he says. And because workers will be able to receive assignments in the field and fill out paperwork remotely, the city is bound to see a productivity increase.

Cost Considerations

When it comes to wireless broadband, there’s no free lunch. Even if someone builds the network for your municipality at no charge, there are still operations costs and a technology refresh down the road. Be realistic and build that into the contract up front, recommends consultant Tom McQuillan.

How to Get Wireless Under Way

Industry experts offer tips for cutting through the red tape and forging wireless networks.

  • Figure out why you need wireless. “There are so many politicians that push for wireless networks, but don’t know what it can do for the city,” says Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute in Washington, D.C. There has to be a legitimate reason, such as public safety, improved city services or connecting citizens in need, or the plan won’t receive funding.
  • Understand the nuances of the technology. Godfrey Chua, research manager for wireless and mobile infrastructure at IDC in Framingham, Mass., cites the example of a small Midwest town that installed access points in early winter and found it working well. But in spring, customers started complaining about outages because the foliage caused dead spots. “There is tremendous complexity to this technology that has to be understood,” Chua says.
  • Avoid network ownership. “It’s foolish to think that a local government that has a hard enough time with public safety and public education can also be a wireless provider,” says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group consultancy in Ashland, Mass. “They’re clearly not experts in the technology, infrastructure, customer service and marketing that wireless companies provide.”
  • Forgo overregulating service providers. Mathias recommends encouraging governments to help providers by smoothing the way with utility companies and other entities that manage assets where antennas could be mounted.
Jan 14 2008