September 17, 2006 By Blake Harris
For the last couple of years the Texas city of Corpus Christi has inadvertently found itself something of a poster child for municipal Wi-Fi because of its early pilot of automated gas and water meter reading -- a Wi-Fi project they started working on in 2003.
"We were working on this pilot and suddenly found ourselves quite the center of attention, no so much by choice," explained Leonard Scott, MIS Business Unit Manager for Corpus Christi. "But people began seeing what we were doing with Wi-Fi."
Using automated meter reading (AMR) as the application to launch Wi-Fi made a great deal of sense for Corpus Christi. As a medium size city with a population about 280,000, it took considerable effort and expense to send people out each month to read water and gas meters -- not to mention such annoyances as attacks from dogs or problems with easements. "We thought there has got to be a better way to do this," explained Scott.
The AMR pilots launched in two different sections of the city proved that indeed the better way was all they could hope for and more. Not only did they have accurate readings every month, but actually had two meter readings per day from each residential gas and water meter. This gave them the ability to track usage and offer much better customer service. "We even have the capability, if somebody is using an inordinate amount of water or gas, of giving them a direct call and giving them a heads up that there may be a problem in that area," said Scott.
The city has also successfully integrated automated readings into their utility billing system so that they are issuing accurate monthly statements to all customers in the pilot.
The success of the pilot means that the city will now be rolling out automated meters throughout the entire city over the next five years. And mobile workers made redundant by AMR are being moved into other areas of city operation.
However, the vision for Wi-Fi in Corpus Christi extends far beyond AMR. With the deployment of Wi-Fi access nodes -- first 300 hundred and now expanded to 800 nodes that so far reach 85 percent of the city's population -- there was now much available bandwidth for a host of other applications.
Corpus Christi is now exploring other many other possibilities that could have significant impact on both city operations and the lives of citizens. "The City of Corpus Christi -- the elected officials and the administration -- have collectively viewed this as the new infrastructure of the 21st century," Scott explained. "We really haven't had a new infrastructure come along for the last 100 or 150 years. So we see this as an infrastructure and as a terrific way to stimulate economic development and to communicate with the citizens in our area."
This view has prompted city officials to cast a wide net in their investigation and evaluation of the next Wi-Fi applications they might deploy. At the same time, they sought to develop partnerships to attract outside firms to conduct commerce and to assist the city to make money and to defer the cost of the network initially deployed at city expense.
However, rather than adopting the usual approach of selecting one, or even a handful of partners, the city wanted to encourage as much involvement as possible from other governmental agencies as well as from non-profit and private institutions. The more partners on board, the better, according to city manager George "Skip" Noe. "In many ways, I think we are breaking new ground in terms of how we are approaching this," Noe explained in an interview last year.
"Our goal was not to provide service down to the individual customer," he