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Cover Story

City of Possibilities

Delivering new options for security, efficiency, savings and growing businesses, Corpus Christi, Texas, is a burgeoning example of how muni Wi-Fi is revolutionizing the way city governments do business.

By Tim Scannell

To tens of thousands of college students, Corpus Christi, Texas, and its neighboring Padre Island are considered party central when it comes to spring break and mid-semester diversions that include generous doses of sun, sea and things you don’t necessarily mention in letters sent home to parents.

However, this port town is gaining a reputation for more than its ability to offer a good time. It could also be the municipal poster child for using wireless technology as a means of improving government services and rallying agencies in the event of an emergency.

What started as a relatively modest effort to automate meter reading a few years ago has mushroomed into an extensive multi-technology network that ties together a variety of databases and input devices, including cameras located on city streets and within banks. A few years ago,Corpus Christi took a giant leap of faith and decided to install a Wi-Fi mesh network as part of a planned upgrade of the city’s water meters. City officials knew that wireless could eliminate the cost and trouble of expanding its wired system, but it wasn’t too sure about how well a wireless system would work or how much it would cost. There were also some questions about the reliability of wireless systems deployed over widely scattered residential and business areas.

“At the time, there wasn’t a commercial [Wi-Fi] system that was reliable enough, and so most available solutions involved a cellular modem at a great expense,” said Leonard Scott, Corpus Christi’s business unit manager. Scott was at a trade show when he bumped into executives from Tropos Networks, who pitched a mesh version of a Wi-Fi system that would work seamlessly throughout a metropolitan area. “Being an old radio man and a computer guy I kind of scoffed at that and told them there are too many inherent problems with that, and it’s just not doable,” recalls Scott.

As it turned out, the Tropos system delivered on its promise and became the city’s first step down a path toward becoming one of the most wireless-enabled cities in the country. The entire effort was kicked up a notch in 2004 when executives from Intel came to town and were so impressed with what they saw that Intel later offered to officially support the city in its wireless efforts.

Northrop Grumman’s Information Technology division also came into the picture, as part of a $23 million systems integration contract, and it is presently extending the system to provide a vital lifeline to businesses and citizens in the event of such disasters as a hurricane or act of terrorism. Partners in this effort include Hexagram, the city of Cleveland and Tropos Networks.

Today the city’s Wi-Fi cloud covers more than 80 square miles and will be expanded to 147 square miles—the entire city—by this August, said Scott. The meter reader update program continues, but it now includes the development of Wi-Fi networks that will provide mobile access to inspectors and construction crews for building code enforcement, offer wireless links between hospitals, physicians and remote emergency medical service workers, and provide a communications highway for local businesses.

Eventually, the city also hopes to swap its cell phones for voice over IP (VoIP) phones that make use of the Wi-Fi blanket—a move that is expected to save Corpus Christi about 40 percent over current costs, say sources.

Corpus Christi’s active airspace has also attracted a number of companies that want to test new products and technologies. “We have had major corporations develop hardware and software here because of the Wi-Fi network,” admits Scott.

From Everyday to the Extraordinary

Truth be told, most of the wireless projects launched by cities and towns are pretty dull, in terms of applications. However, they do flutter the hearts of city bean counters, as these systems tend to have an almost immediate ROI in terms of cost-savings over manual systems. In Corpus Christi’s case, its Wi-Fi initiative will be profitable within a year or two and pay for itself in several years’ time.

Attracted by these cost-savings and municipal metrics, many local and state governments are rushing to use wireless as a way to automate such people-dependent tasks as utility meter reading and building inspections. In fact, spending by local governments on wireless systems and services worldwide is expected to jump from $802 million in 2005 to $8.6 billion in 2010, says Juniper Research in a report released this year. Projects will involve expanding current 802.11 Wi-Fi networks but also including faster and more secure 3G cellular and WiMAX technologies as well.

Development of systems that support a wide range of mobile telecommunications devices is expected to account for a large portion of these municipal wireless budgets, says Juniper Research. And while time and cost savings may be the initial reasons some cities take that first step toward wireless, heightened concerns about natural and manmade disasters are motivating a lot of local governments to take a serious look at wireless as a means of providing communications and coordinating activities when landline and wired systems fail.

Maintaining connections to police, fire and hospitals is a major objective in deploying city-wide wireless networks, as is extending wireless support to such everyday services as water, sewer and garbage collection. State and federal officials learned this the hard way last year when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans.

“Think about all the confusion and breakdowns in communication during a disaster,” says Maury Blackman, senior VP of marketing and business development for Accela. “You need some way to securely get data back and forth to be able to do business.”

Cities and municipalities “are looking to build efficiencies into the ways that their workers interact with the community and the data they have on site,” Blackman continues, offering the example of government workers needing to inspect buildings after a disaster to make sure they are safe to occupy. Access to wireless tolls and networks can cut inspection and approval time on a single building down from hours to minutes. This is critical when looking at areas that have suffered widespread destruction and getting people back into safe homes is critical.

Accela has more than 20 years of experience in developing and deploying mobile solutions for governments of all sizes, providing tools to small towns such as Brookline, Mass., as well as to larger cities and districts such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The company is also active in the Digital Communities Initiative, a global effort launched last year and led by Intel, that hopes to persuade cities around the world to adopt Wi-Fi for both government and public services. Among the companies partnering in the effort are Cisco Systems, Dell Computer, IBM and SAP AG. Cities involved in the initial pilot program include Cleveland, Philadelphia, Taipei, Seoul, Jerusalem and Corpus Christi.

In some cases, a natural or manmade disaster can create a total breakdown of both wired and wireless networks, which means there may be no local communications at all. This is exactly what happened in New Orleans with Katrina, when support agencies were unable to communicate with each other and residents in shelters or trapped in their homes had no way of knowing the full extent of the devastation. One solution is to establish multiple roaming networks that provide wireless access and localized connectivity to emergency personnel. These networks can also be used to provide information to citizens who may have working wireless devices.

“In effect, this establishes a ‘vehicle area network,’ which offers the ability to set up an 802.11 hub for IP devices to communicate with each other,” explains Mark Ferguson, marketing director at Padcom. This wireless gateway acts as a central point of communications that can handle multiple frequencies and mobile devices when used with the company’s Total Roam software, he said.

Padcom’s solution was adopted by the City of Lakewood, Colo., in 2003 to tie together five active networks spread across 47 square miles, including a variety of 802.11 Wi-Fi hotspots and a proprietary Ericsson RF system. The effort was part of a $5.5 million project to upgrade the city’s public safety and law enforcement technologies. Now, the system is used by the 265-person police force to access and relay information across multiple networks at nearly real-time speeds.

Corpus Christi officials also hope to expand the public safety aspects of its wide-scale wireless network by linking cameras and monitors installed on city street corners, public buildings and even in banks and private businesses when permissions are given, says Business Unit Manager Scott. Firefighters and police officers will also be able to instantly tap into multiple databases that can pinpoint things like combustible materials stored in a warehouse or architectural changes in a building’s layout.

“Pushing information out to police and other first responders is important since a lot of this stuff is usually only available on disks and CDs,” says Scott. The city is also about halfway through a program to put a wireless spin on medical data for first responders, and it is working with IBM on developing a video recording and distribution system that will pump out live feeds through the city’s fiber network.

On the Inside Looking Out

Rosum takes a very different approach to providing mobile mission-critical wireless systems by mixing GPS technology with television broadcast signals to provide accurate in-building location and tracking capabilities. The company was founded in 2000 by Dr. James Spilker, who is the co-architect of GPS technology. Spilker recognized the inherent limitations of GPS, especially when trying to track people and things within buildings, and decided to enhance that capability by taking advantage of the wide-scale availability of television broadcast towers and signals.

The company now builds the chipsets and TV-GPS technology, which is then integrated into GPS products manufactured by firms such as Trimble Navigation. “GPS has its shortcomings,” says John Metzler, Rosum’s director of business development. “TV is interesting, however, because it is distributed around urban areas and is very robust.” In Gulf states, during last year’s hurricanes, for example, television and FM radio stations stayed on the air and emergency data could have piggybacked on those signals. “These systems are already used for emergency alert systems and therefore are already designed to be disaster resistant,” said Metzler.

In fact, the Advanced Television Standards Committee is already working to develop a broadcast and electronics standard for emergency services worldwide. The non-profit group hopes to provide these standards to manufacturers who can then build systems that make use of television broadcast signals. “They realize TV has a very valuable role to play, particularly in disaster planning, and we are working with them to make sure it happens,” adds Metzler.

TV isn’t the only communications game in town, though, which is why Rosum has developed technology that is “backhaul agnostic.” The company has also designed prototype systems that can be self-deployed and specifically tailored to reduce the possibility of human error, which is often the weakest link in any automated system. Human error is inevitable when dealing with any type of manual system, say the experts.

“When you give someone a piece of paper you are basically dependent on that person filling it out properly,” says Accela’s Blackman. “With a mobile application, you can walk someone through a process and give them an online checklist that leads them down the same path in terms of the information collected.”

Older and more established wireless technologies, such as GPS, are also given a new twist by applying their location-based abilities to new applications. Trimble Navigation, for instance, recently introduced a construction management application that uses GPS to keep tabs on such things as expensive machinery and construction supplies. The same system can also be used for scheduling and job planning by using it to map out where specific pieces of equipment should be at any given time.

In-building wireless may be the next big step local and state governments take as they look to increase that umbrella of connectivity and expand its reach to go deep inside the concrete canyons of larger cities and even smaller locales. Companies like Rosum are already employing GPS-based solutions for asset- and people-tracking applications. Other developers, such as LGC Wireless, are taking that in-building idea a bit further. With more than 5,500 deployments in 45 countries, LGC uses a mix of cellular, Wi-Fi and RF technologies.

“The real challenge to conventional wireless is that signals have difficulty penetrating concrete fields,” explained John Spindler, LGC’s VP of marketing. This is why you see a lot of people running to windows and open areas to get better cell phone voice connections, he added. “Outside networks are not really designed for in-building coverage.” Making a wireless data connection with an outside system is even more difficult, even though an increasing amount of in-building wireless traffic is data-related. Japan’s DoCoMo has an in-building solution, notes Spindler, and up to 70 percent of the calls made over this network involve data transfers.

LGC’s wireless solutions are presently installed in subways, government buildings and major airports such as Dulles in Washington, D.C. A system is also installed at Cedars-Sinai Center in Los Angeles, one of the largest non-profit hospitals in the country.

No single wireless network can be expected to be all things to all applications, however, which is why many companies are looking for systems that can juggle multiple networks. This is especially true where mission-critical applications are the norm and poor quality of service is unacceptable.

“Wi-Fi can be used very successfully in hospitals where the clients can be surveyed and there is no danger of the power going off,” says Rosum’s Metzler. However, a lot of the company’s customers are combining different wireless technologies to hedge their wireless investments. “This is why it is important to be backhaul agnostic.”

Tim Scannell is founder and chief analyst of Shoreline Research, a consultancy focused on mobile and wireless markets.

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