- By William Jackson
- Sep 09, 2004
Bernalillo County, N.M., built wireless Internet access and voice services into its new, $67 million courthouse. Jurors and attorneys like the wireless services, but judges have been slower to adopt them.
Courtesy of Bernalillo County
Jurors get wireless reach outside N.M. courthouse
The state's communications office objected to lost revenue when Bernalillo County adopted VOIP, chief technologist Paul Roybal says.
The new Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque, N.M., was designed with communications in mind.
'We planned for plenty of Category 6 wall jacks,' said Paul Roybal, the court's chief technology officer. Planners also took wireless networking into account because, he said, 'We knew it was an emerging technology we should plan for.'
The planning has paid off for jurors, who now can surf the Web wirelessly while waiting to be called for duty. The county wants to add voice over the wireless LAN and eventually extend access to courtrooms for attorneys and judges.
Attorneys, who bill by the hour, are eager to extend their access. Response varies from the 16 Metropolitan Court judges, a more tradition-bound group, Roybal said.
'The younger judges are more accepting,' he said. 'The older ones are not so accepting.'
The Metropolitan Court is the county's busiest, with 3,000 people a day passing through. The courthouse consolidates small claims, magistrate and municipal courts. It handles traffic, DWI, domestic violence and civil cases up to $25,000. The $67 million, 260,000-square-foot building opened in February.
The first phase of wireless networking focused on the jurors, who use it in the assembly room and need less security because they access only the Internet rather than the county's network.
'We orient 100 jurors every week,' Roybal said. 'There's a lot of downtime for them. We decided it would be a public service to let them bring their laptops and get out to the Web.'
The county chose a BeaconWorks system from Chantry Networks Inc. of Waltham, Mass., which supports IEEE 802.11a, b and g WiFi. BeaconWorks had enough security and redundancy as well as Layer 3 connectivity, which allows seamless roaming throughout the courthouse. It also provides for quality-of-service levels so that applications such as voice can be prioritized.
The county bought a BeaconMaster controller and BeaconPoint thin access points.
'A thick access point must be configured individually,' said Luc Roy, senior director of product management for Chantry. Thin access points are managed centrally from the controller.Access points
By connecting at the network layer where switching and routing occur, the access points and controllers can plug into the network anywhere. When attached, an access point automatically discovers the controller, which configures it and installs policies. The access points draw power from the Ethernet and do not need separate power plugs.
Each controller can support up to 200 access points, and multiple controllers can be used for redundancy. Bernalillo County has 65 access points and one controller. It likely will add a second controller in the second phase of its rollout.
Roybal said the county was more interested in optimal performance than in buying only the minimum number of access points to cover the building.
'We get fewer customers asking about coverage,' he said. Because a wireless LAN is a shared medium, overlapping coverage from multiple access points keeps performance from degrading as additional users come on.
Bernalillo County particularly liked BeaconWorks' Virtual Network Services, which let an administrator set up virtual user groups with separate security and authentication policies. The controller uses the service set identifier of each access point to establish VNS groups of jurors, attorneys, judges, IT staff and voice traffic, all having separate authentication and access policies.
Phone service could be added this fall. The decision for wireless voice was easier because the courthouse already had voice service over its wired IP network, using Cisco Systems Inc.'s Call Manager.
'We didn't want to run two wiring plants' when the new courthouse was built, so both voice and data travel over the IP network, Roybal said. 'The justification was easy.'
The primary reason was the $12,000 to $14,000 per month the county was spending on state telephone service. Abandoning the service for VOIP was not popular with New Mexico's Office of Communications, however, Roybal said.
'We were the first agency to go off the network,' he said.
Using Cisco's Unity Integration with Lotus Notes, the courthouse has integrated voice mail and e-mail, so users can hear e-mail over the phone or access voice mail from their PCs.
'Moves, adds and changes are so much easier, and we can be so much more responsive,' he said. A large block of telephone numbers leased from Qwest Communications International Inc. of Denver is almost exhausted because it is so cheap and easy to add telephones.
Bernalillo County will use mobile handsets from SpectraLink Corp. of Boulder, Colo., to extend voice to the wireless LAN.
'Part of this is to reduce the recurring cost of cell phones,' Roybal said. The move also will eliminate the problem of dead spots in cellular service inside the courthouse. BeaconWorks' Layer 3 connectivity will let users move through the building without dropping calls.Coming soon ...
The next wireless expansion will give the building's IT staff mobile data access, and then prosecutors, attorneys and judges will get it.
So far, jurors like having Internet access in the courthouse, Roybal said. When asked about the experience on their exit questionnaires, many say they are enthusiastic, although there are no figures on how many actually use it.
Others excited about wireless access are the bail bondsmen, Roybal said. The local jail is 20 miles out of town, and all bonding and release is done via video from the courthouse.
'They could pretty much conduct their business with a cell phone and a laptop,' Roybal said.
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.