October 29, 2007 By Steve Towns
Houston CIO Richard Lewis oversees technology operations for the largest city in Texas. In an interview with Texas Technology, Lewis discussed a wide range of IT-related activities, including Houston's now-troubled plan to create a 640-square-mile municipal Wi-Fi network.
In addition, Lewis talked about how Houston's experience during Hurricane Katrina response and recovery in 2005 shaped the city's current approach to disaster management. Houston housed, fed and cared for more than 150,000 evacuees who were displaced by the storm. Since then, Houston has created numerous applications designed to strengthen response capabilities and improve situational awareness.
Lewis became CIO in 2002. Prior to that, he held a number of other city positions, including deputy chief administrative officer, director of finance and administration, and acting director of the municipal court.
Houston had an agreement with EarthLink to build a $40 million Wi-Fi network. The death of EarthLink CEO Garry Betty and the company's decision to scale back its municipal Wi-Fi business threw that industry into turmoil. What's the status of the city Wi-Fi project?
Lewis: The CEO who was in charge when we did the deal passed away, and they backed out of that. I don't think anybody could have anticipated that. We had a tough contract, and they're going to have to pay us a $5 million penalty. So we'll have a nice nest egg to go forward with that. EarthLink could come back. They get a nine-month option period for paying the $5 million.
I've reached out to a number of other entities to help us with this because a lot of cities have the same interests. I think we're going to do an assessment on the municipal wireless market and study when the best time will be to go back to the market for a Wi-Fi network or some kind of wireless infrastructure.
That whole market certainly is in flux right now.
Lewis: Well, it went away with EarthLink's announcement. So there is not a market today for municipal wireless. It'll come back though, because wireless is the future and the wired world is the past. It's just a question of how long it takes and how much tweaking of the business model is required.
So the city remains committed to developing a municipal Wi-Fi network?
Lewis: Absolutely. There are three basic business objectives for the city in this field. Number one is to bring the cost of broadband down, and we've already accomplished that. As soon as we announced what we were doing, Comcast and AT&T dropped their rates. Before our project in Houston, the broadband/DSL rates were anywhere from $30 to $50 per month. Today they are $15 to $20.
The second objective is to reduce the city government's cost of operations. With a wireless provider like EarthLink and the pricing we had under our contract, I could reduce our T1 expense by about 40 percent. Plus I've got 2,000 police cars, and 500 fire and EMS apparatus that need mobile connectivity. The monthly cost per vehicle for Wi-Fi is about $10 versus $45 for a cellular card from Cingular or Verizon.
The third objective is to be sure that we don't leave the low-income communities behind as we go digital. So those are all three very meritorious objectives, and they're still objectives. This is a bump in the road; the question is, how big of a bump? And how long will it take that market to reconstitute itself? We're going to do an assessment that will forecast where this market is going over the next 12 months, and what's the optimum time to go out there with a new solicitation. The mayor has talked about responding to proposals, but not