When trash talks: embracing wireless technology

When trash talks: embracing wireless technology

Local government officials discussed the pluses and pitfalls of wireless technology yesterday at the FOSE trade show in Washington.

The city of Alexandria, Va., is launching Wireless Alexandria, which will offer free public WiFi access in Old Town, said e-government manager Craig T. Fifer. But Wireless Alexandria is not "trying to serve everybody
everywhere" as some municipalities are doing, he added.

The IEEE 802.11b and 802.11g WiFi equipment cost the city less than $14,000, not including a T1 line at $650 per month. It will link up some unusual applications, Fifer said. For example, one application can tell when trash can contents need to be compacted.

A trash can that can, well, talk trash? "There's no reason to pay $40 for a cellular account to make that call," Fifer said. "With WiFi, it's free for the trash can to communicate with you as often as it wants. You can use that same WiFi infrastructure basically for free."

But Alexandria isn't in the business of offering the same service as broadband carriers, who have given their approval to the city's plan, Fifer said. "We want to tread lightly and provide something for our residents that won't hurt the market," he said.

Someone in the audience asked, "If my home or business is in the coverage area, will Wireless Alexandria replace my Comcast or Verizon Internet service?"

Fifer recommended that residents shouldn't give up their current wireless carrier service for several reasons:

  • Because Wireless Alexandria is free, "We won't be answering your service calls at 3 a.m."

  • The city is not putting any encryption on the network, so it's not secure enough for financial transactions

  • The network will have only outdoor access points, and the chances of its working well indoors are slim

  • If the network attracts much inappropriate use, the city might have to set a time limit on access, perhaps two hours per day.

The Navy, in contrast, usually doesn't want to provide public access to its networks. Quite the contrary, said Michael Hernon, a Navy contractor.

Yet the Navy was an early adopter of wireless, Hernon said. In 1902, the service bought wireless telegraphic stations that worked so fast the Navy called them "sparks," because they made sparks fly.

The Navy now uses the 802.11i standard, which meets federal information security requirements. "I see WiFi playing a larger role for the Navy," Hernon said.

For all its sophistication, many people are still uncomfortable with wireless technology.

Brad Whitehead, a representative of Accenture LLP, said he bought his mother a cell phone for her birthday and carefully explained how to use it.

A few days later he called her and asked, "How's the phone working out?"

"Fine, fine," she said. But she sounded hesitant.

"Is something wrong, Mom?"

"I'm just wondering how you knew to call me here in the beauty shop," she said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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