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Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

A public/private partnership in Tucson, Ariz., is closing the digital divide by not only connecting more than 32,000 of the city’s 212,000 households without reliable internet access, but also powering up Tucson’s smart city strategy.

The city and Insight Enterprises are within weeks of completing Phase I of a municipal wireless broadband solution using the Citizen Broadband Radio Service network, a band of radio-frequency spectrum from 3.5 GHz to 3.7 GHz that the Federal Communications Commission has designated for incumbent, priority and general authorized access. Insight’s Cloud + Data Center Transformation team provides project management and long-term managed services over the single solution that combines technologies from multiple providers.

When COVID hit, city officials including CIO Collin Boyce quickly recognized a need for more connectivity. Although the city has an extensive fiber network, extending it to the underserved communities would be time-consuming and costly. Instead, they used the existing fiber backbone that reaches government-owned facilities in those areas such as fire departments and libraries and rapidly deployed cell sites there.

His team vetted vendors to provide radio equipment and antennas and ran through several proofs-of-concept before contracting with Insight to help bring everything together. The city has spent $5 million of its $158 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds on the project.

The work on the community wireless program started in November and will go live this month. “A project that would normally take a year and a half to do, we’re getting it done in somewhere close to three to four months,” Boyce said.

About 60% of the towers are ready to go, he added. The other 40% will be ready this month, with Phase I wrapping up in mid-March.

One challenge city officials ran into was that some of the buildings they had planned to use for cell sites could not accommodate the infrastructure required, so the vendors are going through the permitting and planning process to build towers and traditional cellular infrastructure, Insight’s Director of Services Jeremy Nelson said.

Phase II will double the capacity when it concludes at the end of the year. Phase III will be less about connecting households and more about supporting smart city initiatives. Nelson expects that final step to start in 2022 and finish 18 months later.

Tucson’s smart city rollout was already getting underway when the pandemic shifted Boyce’s attention, but he saw an opportunity to combine solving an immediate problem -- connectivity -- and address a larger objective -- smart city projects.

“This underlying infrastructure will allow us to do just about everything because a smart city is all about connectivity,” Boyce said. “The hard part about connectivity is … the operational costs. This will allow us to control some of those operational costs by making it our network,” he said. Smart city plans include connecting traffic signals and getting alerts on air pollution levels. “From a green city perspective, we are working on bringing on sensors and connecting them to the network,” he added.

The need to connect underserved communities has become urgent in the past year, as communities moved from onsite to online work and education. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s “Fourteenth Broadband Deployment Report” published Jan. 19, 17% of Americans in rural areas and 21% in tribal regions lack access. About 15 million to 16 million -- 30% -- of all K-12 public school students in the United States live in households that have no internet connection, according to Boston Consulting Group.

Nelson said that other cities can easily adopt the system Tucson is building because it is highly modular and repeatable. “We can use a lot of these architectures, processes, partners and manufacturers to basically take this solution and put it into other municipalities,” he said. By blazing the trail, Tucson “created a reference architecture that can be easily recreated and consumed and just altered slightly to meet the needs of other cities or other municipalities,” he said.

Boyce advised other cities to invest the time to fully map out this “significant project” and conduct due diligence with partners. Other lessons learned include allocating funding for additional major construction and reaching out to business partners such as telecommunications companies to make clear that the goal is to augment benefits to residents, not to overtake their business.

“We have a developing roadmap as we go along, taking an agile approach to what else can we utilize this network for,” he said.

This article was changed Feb. 12 to correct the spelling of Collin Boyce's name. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

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