Can a wireless network pay for itself?

A municipal wireless network offers the promise of almost unlimited connectivity. But before deployment, a community needs to consider how the network will be used and paid for.

Becoming a public Internet service provider probably won't cut it, industry experts say.

'Access by itself doesn't allow you to recoup enough revenues to pay for the network,' said Paul Butcher, state and local government marketing manager for Intel Corp.

Philadelphia, Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Texas, and other cities deploying wireless networks are looking at a wide range of workflow processes that can be re-engineered to produce savings and boost revenues.

In Corpus Christi, building inspectors use the network for paperwork in the field. 'That stripped out a number of days in the permit process,' speeding the flow of fees, Butcher said.

Portland, Ore., and Houston will use the networks to read parking meters, reducing the cost of managing those streetside gold mines. Houston expects to pay off its wireless investment in one year, said Craig Settles, a marketing consultant and author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.

'The price is not inconsequential,' Settles said. Communities need to produce a coherent business plan before awarding contracts and must sell the plan to end users, be they citizens, city workers or public safety officials. 'This is a lot of hard work.'

Ellen Kirk, vice president for marketing for Topos Networks Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., called 2006 'the year of the business model.'

'The technology has proven to work,' she said, and 'we have a diversity of applications.' The key to success now is making those applications pay off.

'There will be a piece of the network used for consumer access,' Kirk said. But reduced overtime and increased efficiency in delivering city services probably will be the real selling point.

Emerging standards for the dominant 802.11 WiFi technology will help enable new wireless applications. Seamless bridging between cellular and WiFi networks'and other roaming enhancements to allow seamless mobile access as people move around'could enable converged voice, video and data communications within a few years.

But communities and other government organizations making wireless plans probably should focus on what is achievable now.

'We're just beginning to scratch the surface on voice,' said Tropos senior marketing director Bert Williams. 'I probably would not want to run IPTV over a wireless network.'

At least not yet.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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