Municipal Wireless Takes Shape

Oct. 27, 2008
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.

The value of the public/private partnership is that each party can focus on what it does best. The municipality can focus on providing services without necessarily having to become a wireless network operator. The private sector can focus on leveraging best practices.

In the public/private partnership model, having government as an anchor network tenant is important to success. It provides the service provider with guaranteed revenue to justify the investment and eliminate resistance to ‘bridging the digital divide' with free or low-cost service pricing. Many RFPs have been developed assuming free or low-cost access rights are sufficient incentive for a service provider to build a network and offer desired pricing, but that requires the service provider to roll the dice on a significant capital investment, and is often a formula for unmet expectations and unhappy constituents.

By signing up as an anchor tenant, the government is ensured the ability to leverage the network for new service delivery and public safety applications.

Wireless Applications

The City of Richardson, TX, launched a public hot zone providing free broadband wireless access in the Galatyn Park area of its Telecom Corridor. The network provides business commuters and consumers with broadband capabilities for video streaming, surfing the Internet, downloading e-mail with large attachments and accessing corporate and private networks. It also provides City of Richardson personnel, including police and fire departments, with access to the city's emergency and other proprietary communications systems. The Richardson hot zone is an example of how a public/private partnership can develop a rich, multi-application, multi-use wireless network.

Improving productivity and efficiency of government operations is one key application for municipal wireless networks. Wireless mobility allows government to do more with less by extending the static work setting to a flexible, connected environment where employees can log in virtually anywhere at anytime to better serve their citizens. Police officers, health and social workers, tax assessors, building inspectors and other field personnel can input data at the point of collection to ensure greater speed and accuracy. Social workers on home visitations, for example, can upload and download information as they work with clients. By reducing the amount of time it takes to input, upload and download materials, municipal service can be significantly improved.

Public safety and homeland security are also key elements. Broadband wireless solutions can provide public safety personnel with real-time information and ready access. They may be configured to provide first responder interoperability among fire, police, ambulance and other services in an emergency situation, even if they are using different communications systems. Firefighters can download incident management reports to laptops en route. Police can download digital mug shots to help identify criminals on the spot. Health workers dealing with an outbreak can access the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up-to-date information.

From Mundane to Exotic

Utility authorities are increasingly interested in wireless networks to reduce operational expenses associated with reading meters for electricity, gas and water consumption. Using wireless networks, data accuracy can be improved and cost-per-meter-read can be lowered from an average of two dollars to 10 cents by reducing expenses for personnel, equipment and vehicles. Two-way systems can provide special reads on demand. Networked meters can also be invaluable in providing personalized services based on a given customer's consumption profile, such as offering lower rates for off-peak use.

A more exotic application is mobile TV, which may serve as a community access portal, a source of breaking news and weather, an information source for tourists and more. SmarTVideo Technologies offers a mobile TV service platform available over wireless networks that can stream video at data rates as low as 180kbps, providing more than 20 channels.

Voice over WLAN is an exotic-sounding solution that is already practical over mesh networks and provides convenience and cost savings to government agencies. When engineered correctly, this latency-sensitive application can provide advanced telephony features usually reserved for full-featured office phones, but with the freedom to roam throughout a building or around a campus.

Another application is fleet management. A hosted asset tracking solution for garbage trucks, buses, public works equipment and so forth can save approximately $4,500 per vehicle per year by increasing asset use, optimizing routes and reducing fuel costs. An edge appliance equipped with GPS , sensors and a Wi-Fi radio acts as a secure client on a municipal wireless mesh network. A network manager appliance tracks all edge appliance units and integrates mapping applications and corporate asset tracking to improve fleet management.

Infrastructure Options

Municipal wireless infrastructure options can include 3G cellular and WLAN, but mesh and WiMAX tend to be the technologies of choice. A key element for governments is selecting a solution and a service provider that can provide the flexibility to deal with evolving standards. Few municipalities will want to reengineer a wireless network every couple of years, but there should be a plan for technology refreshment to keep the system current and take advantage of improving performance.

Mesh network solutions use a peer-to-peer infrastructure to backhaul data wirelessly to a wired network. WLAN coverage of large open areas, both indoor and outdoor, is ideal for situations where LAN network cabling is not in place or is deemed too difficult or costly to deploy. Wireless mesh typically incurs lower capital and operating costs compared to fiber solutions and reduces deployment time by taking advantage of existing utility poles and walls for elevated mounting of wireless base stations.

WiMAX is a newer long-range broadband wireless access system that can deliver large amounts of bandwidth very economically. It will give businesses and consumers uninterrupted access to a rich variety of high-bandwidth applications such as networked gaming, streamed digital music, TV, videoconferencing, VoIP and other real-time services. Fixed WiMAX is typically more appropriate for sparsely populated rural environments, while mesh is more attuned to dense urban environments.

Secure Systems

Security is an area of increasing concern in all facets of society, and wireless networking is no exception. Municipal governments need wireless environments that combine no-compromise security and high performance for operations ranging from routine to mission critical.

Secure solutions for municipal wireless protect both the network and information through authentication and encryption. Device authentication and compliance checking to validate that a device is allowed to connect to the network are key requirements.

Validating user identity is also important. Eavesdropping protection commonly involves encrypting traffic from endpoint to access point, using encryption algorithms such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or the Advanced Encryption Standard ( AES ). In addition, a secure system can encrypt information within the wireless mesh traffic using IPSec tunnels.

VPN gateways and industrial-strength firewalls are key components to enable remote access security and protect wired and wireless networks from denial-of-service attacks, viruses, worms and other threats. A threat protection system is a cornerstone of an adaptive defense, protecting networks against incursions by detecting, alerting, blocking and reporting security events on any network.

Getting Started

A range of government grants and creative service providers are available to municipalities starting down the road to broadband wireless. Some municipalities have banked everything with single-product startups, which can limit options as technology and standards evolve. Selection of the right partnerships is a key element to ensuring peak performance, meeting constituent needs and developing a sustainable solution for the long haul.

Success hinges on viable business models that ensure sustainable operation, anchor applications and agencies or businesses, integration services for proper set up, and technology that fits the local geography and economic environment. Municipal wireless should be based on flexibility, network security, communication applications and solid partnerships with service providers.

Angela Singhal Whiteford is director of municipal wireless solutions for Nortel, a global leader in communications. A 10-year telecommunications industry veteran, she previously served in the office of Nortel's chief techology officer in Asia , where she was involved in providing next-generation wireless networks for developing countries.

About the Author

Angela Whiteford | Angela Singhal Whiteford

Steve Hunt, is a globally recognized security advisor, researcher and futurist who led the research teams at Forrester Research and Giga information Group. Throughoutt his log career spanning physical, data, and homeland security, Seteve has advised hundreds of the world's largest public and private organizations in North America, Eupope and the Middle East.