Chip Yager

COMMENTARY

Cities add value to networks with new services

Cities build on wireless networks to improve services, create new revenue streams

In the new age of municipal services, everyone involved in city government leadership is developing ways to make their cities smarter and more digital. Private wireless broadband networks offer a backbone that supports a wide range of new applications and advanced services. These “municipal services networks” are no mere investment in technology for its own sake, but a strategic deployment to deliver better public services more efficiently. A municipal services network can offer many benefits to a city, such as:

  • Improved public surveillance through remote video.
  • Reduced energy consumption by reading smart meters remotely and more frequently.
  • Reduced commute times and pollution, as well as increased safety, through traffic optimization software.
  • Improved public transit reliability and increased ridership through consumer services such as on-board Wi-Fi.
  • Giving emergency response workers real-time access to critical information in the field.
  • Public works personnel dispatched more efficiently based on their proximity to the next dispatch site.
  • Field workers can save money and improve response times by filing reports and accessing database information from their vehicles.

For municipalities with limited IT resources, third parties can also serve as key integrators to get a system up and running, maintain it or eventually move it to city management as their capabilities grow. Cities implementing wireless broadband for municipal services networks may just be trying to solve real problems today, but they are also deploying the infrastructure now that will support future wireless applications.


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The case for municipal Wi-Fi has altered significantly since its launch a few scant years ago. Then, it was about the propagation of standard Wi-Fi connectivity, built out to provide wireless broadband access to communities. Today's municipal services network is built around a fundamentally different case, enabling multiple municipal uses ranging from public services to public safety.

The rise of this model was originally driven by cities' increasing demand for video surveillance. Once that network infrastructure was in place, cities typically began to look at what else they could do with it, unearthing possibilities as broad as the public services they provide. For instance, wireless broadband networks allow for mobile video surveillance in police cars, providing responding officers with better situational awareness while en route to the scene of an incident.

Other uses come into play fairly quickly once cities realize they can expand on the capacity they already have. Public works employees can leverage mobile computers in the field with real-time network access for on-location productivity without the city incurring costly monthly cellular data charges. Mass transit can leverage the infrastructure to connect intelligent traffic systems, optimizing routes and dispatch for accurate bus route and light rail planning. Bus lines can run location-based applications to track buses or update signage. Commuter rails offer passenger counts and remote monitoring that can be tied into ticketing for greater profitability.

In other words, each time a municipal services network takes on a new city service or application to support, it adds that much more value to the original network investment.

Many timely factors are converging right now to make a municipal services network an extremely cost-efficient investment for cities of any size. The typical network is deployed around the urban core. The entire network does not need to be rolled out at once, but cities can take a phased approach to building out a network. So the initial investment can be scoped around intended uses along known corridors. That predictability makes it easier to earmark budget and any stimulus funding.

Adding value to existing services

Parking can be a high revenue funding source for cities, and a lot of money is left on the table when fees are not collected or meters are used more than once during the same time out period. One of South Florida’s largest cities used its Municipal Services network to connect all of its parking meters and process credit card transactions. That same capability which captures more revenue for the city also offers additional value directly to the public through a mobile application that provides information to drivers, directing them to the nearest available parking spot.

Also, with wireless networks being more commonplace, it is simply more accepted now that these solutions pay off in municipal environments. There is enough evidence from early adopter cities that have been using their networks for years, reliably and with a positive return, that it is no longer seen as bleeding-edge technology. Wireless broadband networks are also getting easier to deploy. Vendors and partners have more experience. And, in some cases, utility companies have even strengthened the wireless expertise of their IT departments to take ownership of infrastructure deployment and maintenance strategies.

The key to today’s smart city is the mesh wide area network (MWAN), working together with other types of wireless technologies such as point-to-point (PTP) and point-to-multipoint (PMP) networks in public spaces. Planners are quick to adopt these wireless solutions as their preferred option for municipal services networks so as not to tie everything down to hard-wired Ethernet connections.

Large municipal services networks based on mesh networking, PTP and PMP technologies can be deployed in months rather than years, delivering measurable savings quickly. Leveraging existing city infrastructure, such as buildings, light poles or water towers, today’s mesh networks rely on fewer leased lines and do not require costly and time-consuming trenching necessary when deploying traditional cable or fiber solutions to connect the growing number of city assets. By deploying networks based on wireless broadband solutions, cities have the flexibility of adjusting their infrastructure to keep up with their connectivity needs and reduce their monthly leased line and wireless WAN data card costs.

Municipal services networks rely on high-powered, wireless access points that can deliver uninterrupted coverage even in harsh weather conditions. Designed specifically for outdoor environments, mesh networks are ideally suited for municipal services because their dynamic properties and bandwidth easily enable high bandwidth applications such as video.

Mesh networks have dynamic routing properties so they can quickly reroute around failures for greater performance and stability. Coverage and high capacity are both very important for outdoor networks, especially those supporting essential municipal services, so the greater coverage offered by the 802.11n standard helps maximize the reach and performance of mesh for municipal service implementations. With top speeds reaching 300 megabits/sec, this new standard delivers higher performance and more capacity than the former 802.11a/b/g standards, and since it is backwards-compatible, it enhances the performance of legacy devices. The new standard delivers higher performance and more capacity, providing a faster platform with a much longer horizon for use.

Municipal services networks can also support green initiatives with energy and environmental efficiencies of remote services like Automated Meter Reading (AMR) and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). More accurate than occasional manual readings, AMR/AMI allows constant meter monitoring to accurately track usage, provide real-time feedback on consumption and even enable utilities to remotely reduce demand in order to decrease peak capacity requirements.

Green innovation

In one of Southern Europe’s most revered cities, consider the unlikely combination of smart dumpsters and Wi-Fi enabled garbage trucks which are routed to the dumpsters that need to be emptied, reducing fuel consumption and wear and tear on the fleet and roads. Clearly, wireless technologies applied to the needs of real communities can transform the way municipal services are provided.

The environmental impact also includes the savings in staff time and fuel costs over traditional field readings. Because municipal services networks support public services that deliver green efficiencies, from AMR to intelligent traffic and transit systems, cities implementing them are often eligible for clean technology incentives and other federal stimulus funds like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Since mesh networks enable cities to expand municipal services today with abundant capacity for more complex applications tomorrow, we can expect to see city networks getting even smarter as those services expand. In the future, there will be more two-way interaction across networks as services move from merely monitoring to actually controlling assets. Cameras sending one-way video streams can be controlled and directed where they are needed. Instead of simply sending police video from squad cars back to the station, networks can already route video to police en route from multiple sources to prep officers responding to the scene of an incident.

There will also be more service integration as multiple services or agencies begin to combine functions in new ways. Video surveillance feeds from different municipal agencies could be made available to public safety responders, or public transit agencies could tie into the traffic optimization system for even greater reliability and fuel efficiency. Mobility features and location-based services will continue to grow in importance. Dispatching public works employees based on their relative location, or even supplying high-speed data and video links to vehicles moving at high velocity requires network speeds that only 802.11n mesh solutions can provide.

Municipal services networks will continue to deliver consumer benefits through mobile applications or Wi-Fi passenger services on trains and buses or in public spaces. The cumulative effects of coordinating municipal services make the potential investment in mesh networks as much a green initiative as a technology initiative. The time for investing in that change is now since, with good planning, the network solutions adopted by cities today can pay for itself quickly today and still have enough capacity for growth tomorrow.



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