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Things to Consider Before Deploying Free Wireless Access

Dave Truax is deputy chief information officer for the City of Modesto and a member of the Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC). He can be reached at dtruax@modestogov.com. Special thanks to MISAC, whose officers contributed to the development of this article. For more information, visit www.misac.org.


Many municipalities are facing common dilemmas: increasing population, budgetary reductions, economic and socioeconomic challenges, and more. In the search for solutions, policy-makers are turning to wireless technologies. Literally hundreds of cities across the United States are instituting wireless networks, with business models ranging from free access to wholesale pay-per-use. The list of problems to be addressed by these networks is equally diverse, from conquering the digital divide to revitalizing downtown areas.
The goals are admirable and the intentions legitimate. However, the ultimate success of these ventures depends not on bandwidth, coverage or content, but on the clarity and execution of the overall vision. Here are a few areas to think about when considering wireless deployments, particularly as solutions to larger problems.
Closing the Digital Divide, Jump-Starting the Economy
The challenge of the digital divide is a common theme in free or subsidized wireless. Indeed, wireless technologies hold much promise, but only as a part of a coordinated effort. Deploying a free wireless solution for the digital inclusion of economically disadvantaged citizens without coordinating similar programs for affordable computer systems andcommunity training is an exercise in futility; it’s like planning to solve illiteracy by pro-viding free books but not the mentors to teach reading.
If your goal is to bridge the digital divide, work with your local nonprofits to learn about existing efforts to recycle cast-off corporate computers, talk to school districts about their software classes, and learn about state-sponsored technology outreach programs. Wireless availability means nothing to a family without a computer or access to one. Spending some time learning about the issues associated with the digital divide will help you craft a much more effective and focused initiative.
Another factor driving wireless deployments is economic development. When reading proposals for wireless networks dedicated to revitalizing stagnant retail or restaurant districts, I’m often struck by the audacity of the assumptions. It’s not uncommon to read, “City X is going to build a robust wireless network that will bring consumers and new businesses into the area.” Certainly, free wireless access is an attractive amenity and one that is increasingly in demand as consumer devices with Wi-Fi capabilities proliferate. However, this is not an unqualified justification for public expenditures.
For example, let’s examine a common wireless installation scenario: dining establishments. Imagine an established restaurant with patrons who spend, on average, $25 per meal. Now imagine that restaurant’s customer base changes, as people attracted to free web-surfing begin to occupy tables for hours, ordering only coffee or a light snack. Whether or not you believe this example to be realistic, it underscores the danger of making assumptions that may or may not be relevant or appropriate to your initiative and taxpayers.
Examine What’s Already There To Identify Opportunities
In many areas, there is anything but a scarcity of low-cost or free wireless availability. Traditional providers, nationwide dining/coffee franchises and even homegrown networks are all increasingly providing defacto umbrellas of wireless access. In Modesto, we conducted a survey of the number of Wi-Fi access points in use and were amazed at how many there were.
Conduct your own survey and you may be impressed by the public-private opportunities just waiting for someone to do what government can do best — coordinate, communicate and encourage. Spend some time learning about theexisting services and offerings, meet with providers, hold collaboration sessions and encourage private businesses to coordinate efforts. Consider leveraging what exists, encourage what doesn’t and then find ways to support what’s necessary. Finally, on the economic development front, think about the long-term and big picture impact of deploying a free network. How will it affect future investments by providers operating under traditional business models?You may inadvertently preclude the very growth you hope to foster.
Using Wireless Technology for Public Safety and More
If your deployment is designed around the theme of making government operate more effectively, the opportunities to achieve that goal are within reach and reasonably quantifiable. The same challenges discussed above still hold true, however, as providing wireless access to your public safety and mobile workers also requires due diligence before deploying technology as a means to an end.
Different states have various levels of required approval even to conduct pilot projects that will pass criminal law enforcement data. In California, be preparedtodocument in great detail the technical and administrative processes behind your deployment. In the case of providers that pass data over the Internet, you may need to facilitate dedicated frame circuits or pri- vate microwave backhauls to meet the Department of Justice requirements.Once these requirements have been met, plan to spend a significant amount of time coordinating the efforts of mobile computer, modem, antenna and software vendors.
Choose your pilot program participants carefully; public safety work requires a level of concentration that leaves little time for unstable wireless connections. Plan on doing more than just testing connectivity because having a high-speed connection that supports only a text-based computer-assisted design application is bound to disappoint. Think about terminal server connections, web access and other bandwidth-intensive applications that are unsuited for traditional cellular-based services. Providing officers with data such as high-resolution mug shots or photos from stolen vehicle databases is sure to get their attention, and may even be a trade-off for less than ubiquitous connectivity.
These Are the Trade-Offs
In recent in-depth testing of Wi-Fi net-works for public safety in Modesto, we came to a few conclusions — based on our experiences only. We believe there is no “magic bullet” solution that will securely provide ubiquitous, high bandwidth connectivity at low cost. The more ubiquitous the solution, the lower the bandwidth (unless addressed with higher dollars, complexity and density). The more “multipurpose” the systems are, the greater the need for multiple providers and technologies will be.
Pursuing a wireless strategy should be based on priorities and an examination of trade-offs. If your priority is off-the-shelf interoperability, then you will sacrifice range and security. If your priority is ubiquitous coverage, you will sacrifice bandwidth and pricing. If your priority is security, you’ll sacrifice interoperability. Finally, if your priority is price, then you will sacrifice coverage and security.
Things to Bear in Mind
When considering wireless deployment, learn as much as you can about every aspect of the issue, starting with internal processes, before proceeding. Dust off your right-of-way policy and refine it, if necessary, so that it is creative, flexible and generates revenue. Update your list of assets that might be useful for wireless providers, such as rooftop space, traffic lights, dark fiber, radio towers and other real estate. Meet with your local utilities to discuss joint pole access agreements for new wireless providers. Research and understand the existing services and providers within your area and initiate discussions on planned deployments from traditional providers. Wireless initiatives are increasingly becoming the subject of litigation based on infringement claims, so make sure to involve your legal department throughout the process.
Wireless technologies enable valuable citizen services and can enhance the effectiveness of government. However, without rigorous due diligence and internal reviews, a half-baked measure or abandoned initiative might be the result. Investing the time and effort necessary to thoroughly research and understand your city’s options is the first step in the right direction.