Only over the past few weeks have I noticed the municipalities and community advocates putting together the shards of their business plans and coming up with credible models for building municipal networks again. And these models, not surprisingly, revive the solid understandings of past builders.
I spent the day at the MuniWireless New England conference, a show devoted to showing municipalities the latest models, technologies, and strategies for developing municipal networks. This is not a technology show, but a place to ask questions such as, “Whom do I get involved in planning for building a network?” and “What kinds of surveying should I do in order to lay out wireless sites effectively?” But I waited to get home before posting my blog, because the wireless access at the show was kind of slow.
Why we have to re-evaluate municipal networkingAt this point, I can’t approach this topic (which I’ve written about for a decade) without facing head-on the bad press that has surrounded recent attempts at deploying networks in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and a few of the other nearly 400 areas in U.S. that are working on government-backed networks of one type or another.
The sad thing is that municipal networks, after winning a few major battles, got onto the wrong wavelength suddenly during the past year or two. The public was beginning to accept that municipal networking was not a profligate misuse of tax funds but a prudent investment in the future (perhaps being properly scared by news reports of the tremendous advances that Japan, South Korea, and other countries are making in high-speed networks). Furthermore, pointless legal attacks by telecom companies in several states were being beaten back, and WiMAX offered an exciting new scale for geographical coverage and speed.
But then some major cities started announcing coverage for significantly larger areas than previous projects had tried, and vowed to make the networks pay for themselves through subscriptions or advertising. Soon came the backlash of complaints about lousy reception, slow speed, and lack of interest among residents.
To make things worse, highly-publicized efforts in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley led to what Joanne Hovis, president of Columbia Telecommunications Corp., calls the “Google effect”: small, obscure towns all over the country would wait to be rescued by a corporation that would presumably donate a wireless network to them.
There was always a better model. As Matt Jenson of Nortel Networks pointed out at the conference, wireless networks with a wide coverage can save cities and towns hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The main savings accrue from:
- Workflow automation
- City workers whose jobs take them out into the field, such as inspectors, don’t have to return to the office to fill out paperwork and pick up new orders.
- Public safety.
- This includes video surveillance (obviously a politically controversial practice, but one that has increased safety in many places) and access to life-saving data by the police and firefighters. As Don Mouritzen of Proxim Wireless pointed out, decreases in crime make it very easy to sell municipal networks to the public, even if their costs can’t be totally covered by savings.
- Meter reading and other utility monitoring
- Not only does this reduce the number of workers needed to do the same job, but the public can just forget about it and let costs be deducted automatically from their bills.
But now, I think, most municipalities are back on course. And the conference had answers to lots of other questions.
Two triple tiersAnother trend in municipal networking I’ve heard from many people–and once again, a return to the wisdom of the past–is that wireless with a few T1 backbones is not enough to make a useful network. Wireless is one step and one component of a strategy that includes a substantial fiber network.
A three-tier version of this model involves a fiber ring that brings extremely high bandwidth within a few thousand feet of most locations and goes directly to major buildings such as City Hall, hospitals, and schools. The second tier involves WiMAX, and the final hundred feet can be provided by Wi-Fi.
In one of the most interesting talks of the day, MuniWireless.com founder (and Amsterdam resident) Esme Vos gave a private hearing to the press where she described the roll-out of this three-tier model in many European rural areas. It’s particular popular in areas that were left behind by earlier waves of telecom development, such as Romania and Bulgaria. European governments are investing a lot now in high-bandwidth networking.
WiMAX is not likely to replace Wi-Fi for a long time, according to Vos. For one thing, the ubiquity of Wi-Fi will carry it along for some time. But more importantly, cell phones have trouble reaching distant, low-power WiMAX stations. The battery demands of Wi-Fi only recently came down enough to make it feasible to put Wi-Fi chips in cell phones, and people will come to depend on Wi-Fi access in these devices.
Amsterdam’s CityNet, described by both Vos and Hovis, is a three-tier model of a different type–a three-tier business model.
For a long time, the municipal advocates debated the best funding and control for a digital network. Should the city run the whole thing itself, as a public utility? Should it contract the network out whole hog to a private carrier? What mix of public and private was best?
Most people seem to accept now that the city should pay for and maintain control over the hardware, while letting ISPs compete to offer services over it. In Amsterdam, the city pays for 20% of the physical network and maintains control over it, but contracts out the operation to the Netherlands’ main telecom provider, after a competitive bidding process. Open access to ISPs completes the service.
From pol smarts to pole smartsThe main lesson I took away from the day is that mayors, selectmen, borough chiefs, and politicians at all levels had better pick up some technical expertise in local area networking if they want to guide their cities into twenty-first-century economies.
Every city is unique. You cannot bring in a consultant and just expect solutions to fall into place. The geographic and demographic details of each region make all the difference in the world as to what solution to choose. Just to give a feel for the mind-boggling diversity of subtleties a town has to look at, here are a few I’ve heard of:
- What local, state, and federal rules govern the use of poles
- Where the hills, tall buildings, and other barriers to wireless are
- Who has to buy in to the solution politically
- What areas can be reasonable left off the grid because they’re in unpopulated zones and would be expensive to reach
- Usage patterns of the neighborhood population: middle-aged people do more web surfing and teenagers more high-bandwidth downloads of things such as games and videos
Where’s U.S. policy?Numerous speakers repeated what policy-makers have been saying for a year or more: where is the U.S. government, along with the states, in an age where most economically advanced countries have clear plans and funding in place for delivering high-speed networks?
Everybody’s fear is that the U.S. will be crippled economically and lose its innovative edge because people won’t be part of a modern communications infrastructure. I take a different view.
I think that people who need instant connectivity the most will manage to get it. Individuals are investing in expensive 3G phone service. Businesses are buying fiber. As we saw at this show, savvy municipalities are laying the foundations for high-speed networks.
Innovation and economic progress will continue, but the digital divide will widen. While other countries strive to bring everybody into the information society, the U.S. will leave more and more people behind. The economic and social impact is unpredictable, and the impact on innovation in the long run–because access to services will be spotty–is also a serious issue. We’d better be aware of what we’re doing.