Government Technology

Interview: CIO Richard Lewis on Houston's Wireless Initiative

March 9, 2006 By

The Greater Houston Partnership formed a Technology Infrastructure Task Force, composed of senior executives from the area's business, educational, medical and social/nonprofit enterprises, which meet over the first nine months of 2005. Among other things, the task force concluded in a white paper that Houston needed a cost-effective, high-speed, seamless wireless infrastructure and that everyone across the region needed access to affordable high-speed Internet. Following this, in October 2005, Houston Mayor Bill White formally announced an initiative to make wireless broadband services available throughout the City. The city has now issued two draft RFPs for comment and plans to issue a final version March 17, 2006. Richard Lewis, CIO of the City of Houston, discussed some of the background and strategy behind the RFP with Digital Communities.

Q: Perhaps you could begin by summarizing the wireless vision for Houston?

A: Well, the conclusions that were reached by the Technology Infrastructure Task Force of the Greater Houston Partnership were that we needed to have wireless access all across the region, that it needed to be affordable, and that it was vital to health care, public safety, transportation and economic development. And they suggest that this be done through a collaboration between government and business. I think that was a pretty significant statement to make and I think it probably makes Houston a little bit unique in terms of the wireless infrastructure initiative. I don't think other cities have had the business community come up and say you really need to do this.

Q: Plus the focus was always the region. It wasn't just focused just on the city.

A: I think Mayor White recognizes that while we are a dominant public sector player in the region, but we don't make up the whole region. The economic base is more than just the City of Houston. In fact, the city is about half the population of the region, or maybe a little bit less than half. So we have a large metropolitan area. If it was an economy on its own, it would be way up there internationally. And so it doesn't make any sense to build a network and stop it at the corporate city lines.

Q: As I understand it, you will issue a final RFP later this month that will close May 9th. What is the city planning contribute as an enticement?

A: All the property that we own plus our rights to the light poles under the electric franchise agreement with CenterPoint would be available as an inducement for someone to make this multi-million dollar investment in the network.

Q: So the city wouldn't own the network?

A: That's right. It would be owned by a private party that would be select through a competitive process not unlike what the non-profit corporation in Philadelphia signed with Earthlink. It would be very similar to that.

Q: Have the public access requirements been fully defined?

A: I've been describing the access to be in three tiers. The first is public service, which is primarily field inspections and infrastructure maintenance for crews that are in mobile units. And we have a tremendous investment in streets -- we had 18,000 lay miles of street in the City of Houston. We've got about 4 to 5 thousand linear miles of drainage ditch and drainage infrastructure. We have a large water sewer utility that has water supply, water transmission, and sewage treatment facilities. So we have crews doing maintenance all over the 600 square miles and they would benefit from having work orders signed in the unit with real time completion on response times. So that is a significant undertaking. The

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