Municipal Wi-Fi’s Little Secret

February 10, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — For all the benefit municipal wireless Internet could bring to the residents of a community, the greatest value will likely be from the municipality’s own use.

Take, for instance, public safety. In Grand Rapids, the police and fire department share a wireless network first installed in 1987. Currently, the onboard computer of a police cruiser is limited to text messages, which can include the make and model of a car, license plate number and descriptions of suspects — any data limited to text.

Although it has been expanded multiple times in its nearly two decades, this network cannot transmit even the simplest of images without difficulty, something users of the commercial Internet take for granted.

“Currently, if we have a suspect of a major crime, and we want to get an image or a picture to police officers on their shift in police vehicles, we have no way to transmit it to their cars,” said Ralph Gould, communications bureau manager for the city’s police and fire departments.

To expand the current system further would be costly and technically difficult, he said. Improvement could only be made if the city added an additional channel to its four-channel network, but the FCC has none to give. Grand Rapids already has four times the capacity of Boston, a city with three times the population.

“What we have now works, but we can’t do anything more,” Gould said. “We need more data capacity, and legally we can’t go out and get it. But if we use this technology, we can.”

City officials recently released the RFP for a wireless broadband Internet network to service the entirety of Grand Rapids’ 45 square miles. With such a network in place, likely using Wi-Fi technology or a similar point-to-multipoint protocol, the potential for public service use is as large and varied as that of the commercial Internet.

Images of missing children from Amber Alerts and wanted persons could be transmitted to police cruisers in real time. Firefighters could have access to building blueprints and hazmat information before they enter a structure. Video surveillance could provide emergency responders a view of the situation before they reach the scene.

With a minimal investment, the benefits could extend to all municipal applications, said Thomas McQuillan, the city’s director of information technology.

“We’re trying to leverage this network to help us improve the way we do business,” he said. “Most governments are continuously being challenged with doing more with less, and once we get the network up and rolling, we can start adding applications that do that.”

According to project manager Sally Wesorick, this can be as simple as delivering work orders to crews in the field, eliminating travel time between jobs, but could eventually include mobile access for virtually every city service. Food, building and other inspectors will be able to file reports instantly. City engineers will be able to pull up schematics on site. Other applications could be built atop the city’s online tools for nuisance reporting and property mapping.

It would even be possible for the city to remotely read water meters.

“Less travel time, more accurate information, these are the kinds of things we are trying to accomplish,” McQuillan said.

Though Grand Rapids lists public safety as its top priority in the initiative, both in the RFP and recent public statements from city officials, public sentiment has focused entirely on consumer use. This has been the case across the nation, even though some of the most successful municipal deployments have not provided Internet access to residents.

“It is really the more common business model for our customers, even (more than) Philadelphia — a multi-use, multi-departmental network,” said Brad Day, marketing and communications manager for Tropos Networks, of the nation’s most prominent municipal Wi-Fi project, Wireless Philadelphia.

The California-based Tropos is one of the nation’s leading vendors of municipal networking equipment. Day cited several Tropos deployments that focused primarily on municipal use.

Granbury, Texas, deployed a network last year using a $70,000 federal Homeland Security grant that provided police cruisers with Internet access for data, photos and video. The vendor in the public-private partnership later opened the network up for residential Internet service at $19.95 a month.

Elsewhere in Texas, Corpus Christi, a city of 247,000, deployed a 147-square-mile network based solely on the cost savings expected from automated meter readings. The city used that network to provide Internet access to its school system, and quickly began rolling out applications for inspectors and work crews. An unexpected result was that the improved permit and inspection process sped up private construction projects in the city by several weeks.

Perhaps the best example of a public safety deployment is New Orleans.

A year before it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, the city was already plagued by one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates. In the first half of 2003, the city recorded 146 murders, up from 111 in the same period the previous year. As part of an ambitious crime-fighting agenda, Mayor Ray Nagin issued an RFP for an Internet-based video surveillance system to be installed in high crime neighborhoods.

The system was built around a Tropos wireless network, and helped to lower the murder rate by 57 percent; car thefts dropped 30 percent.

After the hurricane, the network provided the framework for the city’s emergency communications, and has since provided connectivity for relief workers, building inspectors and residents.

Despite a Louisiana state law prohibiting municipalities from providing communications services to residents, the network has been used to create a number of hot spots for public use, with Nagin recently announcing plans to expand the network for public use throughout the city.

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