Internaut: Apps, not access, drive city wireless programs

Shawn P. McCarthy

When it comes to building wide area municipal wireless networks, access alone doesn't get the attention of most city governments. What does spark their interest are applications that support a mobile workforce and offer a clear return on investment for a wireless infrastructure.

This conclusion comes from a group of people who have spent the last two years helping three early adopters build citywide WiFi mesh systems: Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Philadelphia. The group has also talked with many other cities about why they are waiting before tackling such projects.

It's not simply a matter of building the infrastructure and waiting for the users to line up, says Paul Butcher, marketing manager for state and local government at Intel Corp. He said only talking about wireless network access 'fell on its face' as a way to gain city manager mind share.

Intel is a key player in a recently launched effort called Digital Cities. Other participants include Dell Inc., SAP, IBM Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc.

These companies are coordinating their efforts to document best practices for citywide wireless systems while focusing attention on solutions rather than isolated technologies. The group presents a good resource for cities considering mesh network investments.

Leonard Scott, project manager for Corpus Christi's mesh network, worked with the Digital Cities group. He said 70 percent of his city's workers spend significant time in the field. His main goal was to push access to desktop applications out to mobile workers. Without wireless access, most would spend the first and last hour of the day at their desks. If they were crew supervisors, it often meant full crews were less productive during that time.

Scott said the city has invested more than $1 million to enable access in 20 percent of the city. He expects the ROI to break even in about four years, with greater cost savings beyond that.
Here are the most common city applications, according to Butcher, and the associated ROI potential for each.

Mobile workers'Because inspection teams (buildings, zoning, fire, water and sewer) are often out of the office, this is where many cities start. Online access to forms, databases and payment processing can keep inspectors in the field rather than driving back to the office every few hours. ROI payoffs: More productive work hours, smaller cell phone bills.

Device monitoring and control'Some cities, including Corpus Christi, have parking meters that accept credit card payments. They contain cell phone modems that incur monthly fees. Other cities have water meters and traffic devices with cell phone or leased-line modems. With a wireless mesh network, all such subscription costs can be eliminated and credited towards ROI.

First-responder systems'When fire, ambulance and police departments reach an emergency site, they need access to maps, data about surrounding resources and lists of contact names and phone numbers. In this case, the ROI of a mesh network is measured primarily in lives saved.

Telecommunications infrastructure'It's unlikely this will ever be a government's initial reason to launch a mesh network. Bandwidth needs to improve before mesh solutions can be used to provide citywide voice over IP communications. But when that happens, cities could potentially eliminate many cell phone subscriptions, walkie-talkie hardware, leased phone lines between buildings and even some private branch exchange systems. In this case, the ROI could be huge.

The best first step for cities: Focus on a single application with the greatest ROI. This alone could provide justification to start mesh network construction in a limited area. It will grow, as needed, from there.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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