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Muni Wi-Fi: This time it's more than public Internet access

The Silicon Valley city of San Carlos has wired about 250 downtown parking spaces with sensors connected to a municipal mesh Wi-Fi network to support a mobile application that gives motorists up-to-the-minute information about available parking.

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The immediate goal of the one-year pilot is to see if access to information can ease congestion for downtown businesses and their patrons, improve parking enforcement and maybe spur economic development in the city of 28,400.

“There are times of day when it is hard to find parking downtown, and times when it is plentiful,” said Assistant City Manager Brian Moura. “If we could provide information to drivers, would they change their habits?”

But the pilot also is part of a larger effort by Cisco to develop a new generation of municipal Wi-Fi that the company hopes will go beyond offering free public Internet access and enable smarter city management and better delivery of services, ranging from water and electricity to waste pick-up. The San Carlos wireless deployment, which started three years ago, is a living testbed used by the company in developing its recently announced Smart+Connected City Wi-Fi, a reference architecture for citywide wireless networking to support the much anticipated Internet of Things.

The architecture integrates off-the-shelf Cisco components validated to ensure that they will scale and function to support a variety of municipal applications and services, from improved parking visibility to automated waste management.

“We’ve taken an architectural approach to how a city can move to this more efficient way to manage city infrastructure,” said John Baekelmans, CTO of Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities. “These kinds of things you can test only so much in the lab, and then you need some real-world applications.”

Municipal Wi-Fi is not a new idea. Nor has it been a successful one, so far. In the first decade of the century numerous schemes were announced to wire cities for free or discounted public Internet access, only to be dropped in the face of the technical obstacles and the regulatory and business challenges of providing Internet access as a city service. As cellular coverage and the use of smartphones expanded, municipal Wi-Fi became less attractive.

Hardik Bhatt was chief information officer in Chicago when the city shelved its public Wi-Fi project in 2007. The private sector was not interested in it from a business point of view, and “the city was not ready for the risk,” he said.

Today, Bhatt is director of business development for Smart+Connected Communities at Cisco, pushing a new business model for municipal Wi-Fi. Smart mobile devices are becoming ubiquitous, and user habits have changed. And with faster speeds and better options for blanket coverage, Cisco sees Wi-Fi as a tool not just for public Internet access but also for enabling a broad range of city services and improving management of existing services. On Sept. 11 the company announced its reference architecture for the program, a suite of products to provide an end-to-end network to support these services.

Elements of the architecture include outdoor mesh Wi-Fi, ruggedized switching and routing for the Internet of Things (machine-to-machine communications), as well as Cisco Prime and Mobility Services Engine for network management.

Development of the architecture has been under way for several years. In 2010 Cisco proposed to San Carlos that it install a downtown Wi-Fi network, at the company’s expense. “We were looking for a living lab where we could test new technology,” Bhatt said.

Along with many other cities, San Carlos had considered municipal Wi-Fi a decade earlier, Moura said. “Vendors were coming to us begging us to let them put it in. It wasn’t clear to me how that business model would work,” he said.

Cisco’s more limited proposal to connect several blocks of Laurel Street, the main business drag, and the area around the city’s Caltrain station made more sense to him. “I had always thought that the place it would make sense is in the business district, not citywide,” Moura said.

The San Carlos implementation includes Cisco Aironet 1550 series ruggedized outdoor 802.11n access points and Cisco Prime network management tools. The access points can provide up to 600 megabits per second and operate in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrums. The 2.4 GHz channel usually is used for local access, and the 5 GHz can be configured either for local access or for wireless mesh backhaul.

The initial applications Cisco wanted to experiment with were parking and transportation, and late last year Cisco and Streetline Inc. approached San Carlos about installing a parking management system. The system includes battery-powered, in-pavement wireless sensors from Dust Networks that have light sensors and magnetometers to detect when large metal objects are parked above them. The sensors use ultra-low power 2.4 GHz radio transmission to send data to a Streetline gateway that can aggregate data from several hundred sensors and pass it via Wi-Fi to a network. The data is sent to a Streetline data center, and municipal customers can access data indicating which spots are occupied and which are vacant through desktop applications. Drivers can use a free smartphone app called Parker to locate available parking spaces in their area, or near a destination.

“We reached out to Cisco about one-and-a-half years ago,” said Streetline Senior Vice President Kurt Buecheler. “We realized that we don’t care about the way we communicate,” and thought that the Cisco Wi-Fi project would provide a good platform for its service. The small amount of information each sensor transmits is not a burden to high-speed Wi-Fi, and the result was a one-year pilot in San Carlos that will wrap up later this year.

The initial use of the system is to ease downtown congestion and improve parking by making it easier for drivers to find spaces, Moura said. Another use will be economic development. Parking is a major issue in business planning, and reports generated from Streetline data could replace manual counting of available spaces.

“You can know exactly how many spaces are available in a certain place at a certain time,” Moura said. “There is no more guessing. That has the potential of really changing the decisions.”

A third use for the system could be better parking enforcement. Although parking tickets can produce revenue for a city, the primary purpose of parking regulations often is to ensure turnover in spaces, which can improve the flow of business in a downtown area. But the strategy requires that restrictions be enforced, and “this is not as efficient as it could be,” Moura said. A system that gives real-time visibility into what spaces are in violation could increase efficiency.

The city will evaluate the pilot and decide whether to expand the system later this year. “Our constituents have bought into it,” Moura said, and both businesses and their customers seem to like the tool.

Parking is not the only application for smart Wi-Fi cities. Moura expects remote monitoring and managing of utilities such as water, sewage and electricity will be the next logical step. Cisco’s Baekelmans said his company wants to work with manufacturers to incorporate Wi-Fi nodes into products such as streetlights. Not only could this provide near-ubiquitous coverage, but it could tie directly in to the lighting systems.

“Street lighting is typically a cost-intensive service for cities,” Baekelmans said. Dimming and brightening lights according to traffic in the immediate area could be a big money saver. Sensors and nodes in trash containers is another possibility. Pick-up routes could be automated to send trucks where they are needed, which it has been estimated could save 30 percent of fuel costs.

“Cisco will not be going into the waste management business,” Baekelmans said. “But we can help design the technology to integrate it with the network.”

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