June 28, 2006 - From the June, 2006 issue

Municipal WiFi: Diamond Bar Offers Lessons For Jurisdictions Implementing Networks

While the public sector of the 20th century invested in hard infrastructure-roads and sewers, wires and cables-the infrastructure of the 21st century may be far less solid. WiFi-a means of broadcasting wireless internet access across wide areas-is the next stage in communications infrastructure, and many cities are considering municipal systems. In the following speech excerpt, City of Diamond Bar Information Services Director Ken Desforges explains the benefits of and hurdles to municipal WiFi investment.

Ken Desforges

"I live in a strictly rural community, and people here speak of ‘the radio' in the large sense, with an over-meaning. When they say ‘the radio' they don't mean a cabinet, an electrical phenomenon, or a man in a studio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes. It is a mighty attractive idol."

–E.B. White, 1939

Could the word "radio" now be replaced with "internet"?

Initially, I want to talk about broadband. I don't think we can understand WiFi until we understand what broadband is. Broadband is responding to or operating at a wide band of frequency. This allows simultaneous voice, data, and video, and that really is the key of where technology is trying to go.

How does this affect the public sector? Public service sector delivery is changing. Originally you had the traditional brick and mortar public sector, which were organized in silos. The constituents were seen as citizens. The knowledge structure was centralized information-owner. The dominant management style was hierarchical. But there has been a transitional period, moving to a multi-modal model with the introduction of e-government. We are evolving into partnerships where constituents are now seen as customers, our knowledge structure is information-sharing, and the dominant management style is moving toward a participatory style.

In the new, networked public sector, we're moving towards virtual government-any service, anywhere, any time. Organizational structures are networked seamless services. Constituents are no longer seen as citizens, but really as customers, and we are focused on customer service. The knowledge structure is made up of networked stores of knowledge. And the dominant management style is adaptive. Some of this network information may come from cities, from counties, or the state. Our job as a municipal entity is to serve the community all of that information at whatever time they want.

This presentation is based on the city of Diamond Bar. Some of these things are specific, but I am hoping to share with you why we started to look at WiFi. We have broadband in Diamond Bar, but of 16,000 houses, only 3,000 currently buy from Adelphia. We receive regular complaints from residents regarding price and the quality of the connection. The city also receives no revenue and has no control over rates or quality of service through our normal video franchise agreements.

Broadband is too important to be left to the cable company and the cable/phone duopoly. The Washington Post had an important article discussing how the telecom and cable companies have let down their customers in terms of price, reliability, getting connected, technical support, and features. The telecoms' goal is what's called the triple play: they're interested in providing the voice, date and video. Now there is really a fourth play, which is mobility. They want to be able to offer you your voice service, your data service, and your video service, anywhere that you go. Currently, the cable company can give you video and data, and the telecoms can give you voice and date. The line is blurring with streaming video over the telecom lines, and voice over IP for the cable company. In our case, we felt the city may lose revenue as this line is blurred because we receive no income from the cable company for internet fees.

Let's talk about competitive advantages, which every business wants. All levels of government provide that to businesses in exchange for some greater benefit to the population through cable franchises, public utilities, etc. Diamond Bar has franchise agreements and we provide a competitive advantage to Adelphia in exchange for them building the cable infrastructure for the city. The cost to build that infrastructure would be almost $16 million. Do we have any other options besides the telecom and the cable companies? Yes-wireless technology. It has the same ability to cover every home in the city at a much lower cost per home when compared with trenching to lay fiber. One type of wireless technology is WiFi.

The concept of a wireless mesh network is that if any one node fails, the other nodes will pick up or compensate for that area, so that we get complete coverage throughout a city or a municipal area with no single point of failure. I would say right now the most successful wireless deployment in the nation is Tempe, Arizona. They have done 57 square miles of "live" network. And they have a tremendous number of users on it, and their police and public safety are allowed to be on the WiFi network as well.

Our wireless initiative is driven primarily by the following reasoning: resident complaints about the high cost of cable and broadband, which is two to three times higher than DSL and double what most of the rest of the world pays for broadband access. We also faced the inability or unwillingness of the local telecom carriers to provide citywide DSL or other high-speed services. We tried to get Verizon to expand their DSL coverage; their answer was basically, "No, not now. We're interested in doing fiber, but we'll get back to you." And we've now been waiting almost two years since those conversations and they still are not ready to commit to bringing it to us.

We have a desire to help span the digital divide by providing a low-cost on-ramp to the information super highway.

Diamond Bar is a fairly affluent community, but we do still have a number of people who would benefit from having a low-cost alternative. The natural evolution of applications in users is towards global use. Many people now have just cell phones. Particularly in high-density areas like New York, 20 percent of the population only have cell phones and don't have a regular land line phone. And we want to deliver WiFi as part of our ongoing commitment to the education of our youth and the community so they can continue to be successful.

But municipal wireless is not without challenges. For instance, we are in California contract cities. Many of our cities do not own their own light poles. It is my technological opinion that you cannot do this without light poles at this time. To date, this has been our number-one roadblock, because Southern California Edison lacks a clear policy regarding access to the poles.

There are also legislative and regulatory issues. The state and the federal telecom laws are changing constantly, and there is incumbent resistance from telecoms and cable companies. Part of the reason that they are not interested in talking a whole lot is that they feel it is much more effective and cost-efficient to go straight to their state and federal elected officials and get the rules changed to better suit them.

You are also going to run into an initial lack of technical expertise. Not that many people are experts in deploying this technology. I can't tell you the number of calls that I have received from people saying they want to come to Diamond Bar and set up the municipal network for us and when I ask them where they have set up they answer, "Oh, we haven't yet, but..." and that is really a big issue. There is obviously capital construction cost, ongoing cost of bandwidth maintenance, back office functions, technical support, billing, etc., if you are doing it from a deeper service basis, and then obviously you are going to have technology changes. There are a great deal of issues to work through if you want to do this, but you can do it.


Wi-Fi trends: Wi-Fi has 134 percent annual growth rate expected for the period 2004-2007. It's a $400 million market by 2007. The growth in Wi-Fi bandwidth performance has been phenomenal. 1.5 megabits now is very common. You've obviously got five, ten, 15, there are now 600 and 700 megabit systems out there that are Wi-Fi; this give you amazing bandwidth – well within the ranges of fiber.

WiFi policy changes: You've got to protect the local community interest and rights – that's what most of us are here for; our job is to protect the local community. We have 15 companies spending over $1 million per year to try to influence the state legislation, and some more than others. The goal is to balance the business model with the free service issues.

There are obviously spectrum issues, property model versus open models. Do you want to do this modern open frequency-WiFi is an open frequency. But whether you want to do a wireless service on a license to property model spectrum. You've got some security concerns; you've got to get the capital; and you've got customer support: who is responsible and how is it to be provided and at what service levels?

Economic goals: Is your goal profit or performance, delivering the speed promised, understanding that this is short-range technology? I think that is the key. A lot of us have our cell phones and we just assume that's ubiquitous, and it's annoying when it drops. WiFi in particular is an extremely short-range technology, again that goes back to some of the technical issues of the frequency spectrum. As we move up greater and greater in the frequencies-2.4, 5.9, 5.6-the range diminishes.

I think you can't do this on a municipal residential basis without using customer premise equipment, also called CPE, much like Dish and DirectTV, where they put a small dish on the front of your house or you have to put antennas near the window. Point-to-point solutions in wireless are mature, robust, reliable, we use them all day long. There are hundreds of line-of-sight, high bandwidth applications.

But Wi-Fi solutions become complex, and rare, when high availability, or long-range, or ubiquity are desired. And the vast majority of cities release studies containing the word "will" in the press release (i.e., "we will do something") usually represent coverage within only a department in the city, such as public safetyand are actually hot zones or hot spots, not genuine fully deployed municipal networks.

What are the models for providing the municipal wireless services? In the public, you've got for-fee or free, owned and operated or owned and outsourced by the public. You've got public-private partnerships or agreements, and you've got the totally private. Public owned and operated: the best example that I am aware of is Chaska, Minnesota, with about 2,300 customers supported by the city staff.

Public-private partnerships: the best examples are Tempe, Arizona, and Chandler, Arizona; Sacramento is in implementation phase right now as well. Other good examples of this concept are the cities of Santa Clara and Cupertino in Northern California, they were built by MetroFi. Promised to be built: Earthlink in Philadelphia, and, just announced, Anaheim. Anaheim has gotten a ton of press but is still very early in the process of getting anything out there. An interesting idea is the proposal from Google in the city of San Francisco to be a limited-speed, no-fee service in exchange for advertising revenue.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of cities, perhaps as many as 150, have set up or are in the process of setting up municipal wireless networks. Maybe 500 to 900 more have set up hot spots, hot zones, and hot streets. In some cases this was because local leaders thought that the region was under-served and others because leaders felt that the offered services were too expensive and contributed to the digital divide and kept its citizens from getting jobs and training in the information economy.

For deployment models: cost expense revenue, to build a municipal network totally owned, operated, and maintained by the city you have an install cost, you have an operational expense, and revenue that all belongs to the city. For a public private partnership, city installs the network and contracts the public operation and maintenance operations to wireless providers. You have an install cost and operational cost, and the revenue could be shared.

A public-private agreement offers resources to entice the construction of public networks that could be used to deliver municipal service and enhance the community to no cost to the city. The install cost, the operational cost, and the revenue would all go to the company. One of the things you could do on that is initially put a franchise agreement in so the city could generate some additional funds.

Deployment model pros and cons: municipal-owned is declining. Most people are just not willing to take the capital risk to do it. There is the cost to maintain, there is an uncertain business model, and it's subject to legislative and legal challenges. But it does give you a greater degree of local control, rates of service levels, and, possibly, a source of city revenue.

Public-private partnership agreements:there is increasing growth in this use, there is a wide range of options when creating the partnership, and it shifts the risk to the private sector. But the city does lose control. Private owned: we have no local control, but we also can't prohibit the coffee shops from doing it. The other thing is that they cherry-pick prime areas and ignore others. This is going to be an example when Verizon and the big companies come into the space, they are going to be very selective about what areas they are covering.

What does Diamond Bar bring to the table in order to attract a partner-and these are things that you'll need to think about if you go into this area. You have physical assets, some vertical assets, in our case we are very limited. You have GIS mapping, in our cases it was new so it was limited. You have non-physical assets: personnel, IS, GS staff, etc. Local control, zoning, and permitting assistance – this is probably your number-one challenge if you don't own your own vertical assets.

What are the applications available under WiFi and wireless technologies? In the least you have uploading reports, downloading graphics, access to emails, ACIC, NCIC, you have access from the police cars, special event communications, you can rapidly set up and tear down monitoring, on the fly incident command center set up, hired on scene camera assistance, GIS on trucks, hazardous materials, traffic, intersection cameras. For water utilities you've got monitoring data, security cameras, meter reading, GIS information available, and infrastructure inventories, and service tickets updates live.


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