Municipal Wireless Takes Shape

Why cities are moving to municipal networks


An emerging market for municipal wireless solutions is rapidly taking shape, with more than 300 U.S. towns, cities and counties currently in the process of implementing or evaluating broadband wireless systems. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can fulfill the needs of urban, suburban and rural communities, there are several compelling models evolving to best fund these networks, determine which applications are most beneficial, and ensure network security.

There are many compelling drivers for municipal wireless solutions:

• Enabling economic development

• Improving government operations and services

• Improving public safety and homeland security

• Reducing government telecommunications costs

Municipal leaders are recognizing the value of a digitally connected community that will enhance delivery of government services, drive higher constituent satisfaction levels and enhance community economic well being. But they must deal with multiple issues in determining the best manner to deliver broadband services. How will the system be funded, operated and maintained? What applications will be supported? What technology will be employed? Can the network be made secure for government operations and personal information?

Attractive for Smaller Cities

Many municipal officials and the telecommunications industry view standards-based broadband wireless technology as a preferred means of providing universal broadband access service. Wi-Fi, wireless mesh and WiMAX broadband wireless technologies are attractive to municipal governments and regional authorities due to lower deployment and capital costs and freedom from cabling. Large-scale projects have generated great attention, but it is actually the tier-two and tier-three municipalities that seem most eager and are most in need. These communities generally have fewer stakeholders and less bureaucracy, making municipal wireless deployment less challenging.

The City of Marshalltown is a small rural Iowa community of more than 26,000 residents located between Des Moines , Cedar Rapids and Waterloo , three of the state's largest cities. The town's leadership was committed to driving economic development, choosing to bring broadband wireless service initially to the downtown core, followed by ubiquitous mobility services for city departments, business and residents. The first city Wi-Fi network in Iowa , the system covers 20 square blocks downtown using wireless mesh technology from Nortel. With a lower capital outlay than required for fiber, the city provided citizens, city workers, businesses and visitors with seamless access and roaming, and has been able to attract new businesses as a result.

Paying the Piper

Delivering these services, of course, requires building a network. But who will foot the bill? And who will run and maintain it?

Proponents of government-driven WiFi believe that, left to free-market forces, service providers will deploy broadband Internet service only where it is profitable, not necessarily where it is needed. They look at large metropolitan areas and rural areas where there is still no DSL or cable Internet service. Service providers are in business to make a profit and cannot afford to build a universal services infrastructure without an assurance of adequate return on investment.

Municipalities are pursuing several economic models including public/private partnerships and a public utility model, in which the network is owned and operated by a new or existing department or agency.

Public/Private Partnerships

Most projects are likely to depend on some form of public/private partnership. One option is for government to fund and own the network, reserving sufficient capacity for government needs and wholesaling the remainder to private service providers. Another option is for the private sector to fund, own and operate the network, offering both retail and wholesale services and supplying broadband services to government as an anchor tenant.

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