Internaut: Municipal wireless programs take planning

Shawn P. McCarthy

As more big cities announce plans to build large-scale wireless mesh networks, city IT managers need to take a step back to establish exactly what they hope to accomplish with such construction.

The idea behind most mesh networks is simple: Municipalities want to offer wireless connectivity to their workers anywhere the city. Rather than taking the traditional 'hot spot' approach where workers must pull up near a wireless hub, a mesh approach places wireless hubs at specific intervals, often atop streetlights and city signs, offering blanket coverage across a large percentage of the city.

The mesh gives every employee, from police officers and firefighters to street maintenance workers, access to city networks and applications while they are on the road.

So far so good. But there's a substantial risk that cities will overpromise and underbudget for their mesh networks. Some places, such as New York City, have announced that they will cover the entire city and also allow citizens to access the network. Exact terms are not clear, but the city has touted the project as a way to bring wireless connectivity to everyone, including neighborhoods traditionally underserved by telecommunications companies. Philadelphia is exploring a similar path.

But big questions remain. Can cities install enough hubs to serve everyone they want to serve? At what cost? And do they really want to be in the public networking business?

Some estimates place the cost of the New York City project at up to $1 billion. And in the iron-and-steel canyons of New York, where everything from microwave ovens to cordless telephones will cause signal degradation, it's likely that wireless hubs on almost every block will be needed if 802.11g technology is used. It's unlikely that the city can provide the coverage it wants using a straight WiFi hot spot approach.

If New York, or any city, eventually migrates a mesh network to the longer-range 802.16 WiMax technology, it might be possible to place the hubs several miles apart, but overall costs and bandwidth requirements would still be a question mark. WiMax isn't expected to roll out in earnest until later this year, so costs and real-world bandwidth limits are not yet clear.

In the meantime, here are some things city planners should consider when approaching wireless mesh networks.
  • Start where the service is most needed, then work toward other areas.

  • Anticipate that more hubs will be needed in areas of greater population density or tall buildings.

  • Contracts with IT service providers should include technology refresh clauses. Make sure you have access to the latest and most economical available equipment.

  • If you plan to give citizens access to the network, research bandwidth requirements thoroughly. Consider establishing user bandwidth limits.

  • If the network is treated as a public utility, will service level agreements be promised? Will a help desk be established? Who will staff it?

  • Plan for an eventual migration to WiMax technologies. Budgeting should include the cost of client-side WiMax connectivity.

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

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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