Government Technology

At Issue: Has the Citywide Wireless Train Left the Station?




Corpus Christi, Texas

Corpus Christi, Texas

December 12, 2011 By

Up until 2007, municipal Wi-Fi was a very hot idea for last-mile Internet connectivity. One of the more appealing ideas was that private companies would assume the upfront costs of installing a citywide Wi-Fi network. Then, advertising or subscriber fees, or both, would reimburse the companies over time. City government, in some cases, would be an anchor tenant. Many cities including Philadelphia, San Francisco and others jumped on the idea – the “next utility” was wireless.

But in 2007, that idea went dark, with a few exceptions. A  Digital Communities story detailed most of the reasons, but basically, the business model didn't work. It wasn't profitable for the companies that assumed the financial risks up front and that ran into delays, politics and other hurdles that they were unwilling to tackle on the increasingly thin hope of future profits. Companies pulled out, various ideas were kicked around, but few came to fruition.

Today, boot up your laptop in any big city or most residential areas and you'll see lots of Wi-Fi networks. Most, however, are password-protected hot spots from businesses and private residences. Free Wi-Fi in most cities is provided only by public libraries, or by coffee shops, hotels and other businesses as a benefit to customers.

So what about the cities that persisted with large-scale Wi-Fi as a sort of utility? How did they do it, was it worth it, and is the opportunity still available to reboot citywide Wi-Fi initiatives? Corpus Christi, Texas, is a wireless success story by most accounts, so we talked to CIO Michael Armstrong to get his perspective.

Corpus Christi, Texas

Corpus Christi CIO Michael Armstrong

Corpus Christi’s Wi-Fi began in 2003 when a pit bull mauled a city meter reader, said Armstrong. The city at that time began looking for alternatives for reading water and gas meters. Today the city can read nearly all of the 140,000 water and gas meters wirelessly. Automated meter reading was using only a fraction of the available bandwidth, so in 2006, the city issued an RFP for managing the excess bandwidth. EarthLink responded and wanted to buy the entire system, so Corpus Christi sold it for $3.5 million cash plus additional payments over the next several years.

“Shortly after I came here in late 2007,” said Armstrong, “EarthLink announced they were getting out of the Wi-Fi business altogether. The potential was that they would simply abandon the systems that they had. We were able to negotiate taking back the systems. And we kept the cash, which helped offset the cost of building the system itself. In 2008, we took the system back and took about a year to re-engineer and retool it.” 

The city began adding new capabilities. Today, Armstrong said, he thinks the system – which has an average throughput across the entire Wi-Fi network of between 2.5 and 3 megs up and down – is very close to what was envisioned years ago for citywide Wi-Fi. The city’s 1,395 Wi-Fi radios cover 147 square miles and ride on about 200 miles of privately owned fiber.

Corpus Christi focused on empowering city government and not becoming an ISP, he said, and now the Wi-Fi supports a long list of applications and service enhancements.

City Government Applications

“We have 102 data collection units for water and gas meter data,” Armstrong said, that take readings once or twice a day depending on types. The Water Department is working on reading some larger customers every 15 minutes.

“We have 35 public hot zones, including tourist areas, parks, our convention center, libraries and city buildings,” said Armstrong. “We’re getting about 60,000 user sessions a month on the public side for Internet connectivity. Public and city traffic are separated. We’ve segmented off the government side, we don’t let [the public] in there.”

The Wi-Fi supports 250 mobile government workers, from graffiti removal to restaurant and building inspectors. “We have 125 vehicles equipped with mobile routers, in case we have a storm and lose all our infrastructure,” he said. “By staging those vehicles, we can get some form of a functional network back up pretty quickly. The RTA, our local transportation agency, is putting mobile routers on about 100 buses and other vehicles.”

The city has deployed about 65 wireless video cameras for parking lot surveillance, illegal dumping, beach operations, scale-house monitoring at the landfill, as well as public safety uses. More cameras are planned and will max out at about 200.

In addition to several completely wireless fire stations, the city is also implementing several hundred wireless water quality monitoring stations, and rolling out 10 wireless tourist information kiosks.

WiMax and LTE

Armstrong said the city has 15 towers providing WiMax throughput up to 400 Mbps. Years ago, the idea was that WiMax could be rolled out with less expense than Wi-Fi, as it would require fewer towers, etc. “Now,” said Armstrong, “it’s pretty much relegated to a backhaul or point-to-point. It’s being supplanted by LTE, because of the decision by the FCC to use LTE to build a nationwide interoperable public safety network.

“WiMax will be with us awhile,” he said, “as it’s a great point-to-point and point-to-multipoint technology that we use a lot. We have a lot of water here and it gets us across the water really easy." Armstrong said the city would like to get fiber out to North Padre Island, but in the interim the WiMax is being used. "We’d like to get to gigabit speed over fiber, right now we’re getting about 400 Mbps with WiMax."

Starting Fresh?

Can other cities replicate Corpus Christi’s success? While Armstrong doesn’t say it’s impossible, he pointed out many advantages enjoyed by Corpus Christi, not the least of which was the money from EarthLink that enabled some of the development.

“We have a very good scale," he explained. "Covering 150 square miles is very different than covering 500 square miles. Our terrain is very flat, we don’t have a lot of huge tall trees, we have a lot of towers we can use, so conditions are pretty ideal.”

What suggestions does Armstrong have? “There are a lot of different models I’ve talked to people about. I think doing this for public access is a bad buy. I think if you’re going to go into a system like this, you’ve got to focus on government services, because that’s the only place you’re going to get payback. Technically it can probably be done easier now, but with the economy, it depends on what kind of business case you put together. We have very little in the way of external communication costs, we don’t have many T-1s left, we do our own phone system that rides both the fiber and the Wi-Fi, so you look for those kinds of opportunities.”

The most interesting piece in that equation now, said Armstrong, is how quickly LTE is going to get rolled out. “It has a lot of the advantages we were looking at with WiMax, with a reduced number of access points and much higher bandwidth. We’re watching that real close, and talking to folks here in Texas, about being part of a statewide LTE network over the next year or two.”

LTE is exclusively public safety at this point, he said, but there may be opportunities for other LTE uses, depending on what the FCC does with spectrum. “What we’re using for LTE now,” he said, “is a fairly limited band of the 700 megahertz D Block that was freed up by HDTV conversions. Partly it depends on if the FCC will loosen up the rules for local government use of D Block or will make other spectrum available.

“The purpose has to drive your architectural decision,” said Armstrong. “You build it to serve the purpose that you want. If you are doing automated meter reading, you can do that with cellular, you can do it with Wi-Fi or LTE."

Has the citywide Wi-Fi train left the station? Are the conditions that enabled Corpus Christi’s Wi-Fi system now out of reach for most cities, or are there emerging opportunities and technologies that will enable a new generation of connectivity? Send your comments to whanson@centerdigitalgov.com.


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