Government Technology

The Different Flavors of Muni Wi-Fi

March 12, 2007 By

As citywide Wi-Fi initiatives spread like wildfire, local governments choose from the expanding crop of business models in moving forward with adoption. The staff of Government Technology magazine looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the prominent models that have emerged.

The Do It Yourself Model

Corpus Christi, Texas, adopted a publicly funded model for its widely admired citywide Wi-Fi network. The city's smaller size forced it to pay the infrastructure costs, requiring $7.1 million on top of nearly half a million dollars in annual maintenance costs. Naturally the advantage is that Corpus Christi owns the network and completely controls the network's direction.

After setting aside 40 percent of the bandwidth for mobile applications designed to streamline agency functions, the city chose to lease the remaining 60 percent to ISPs. The resulting revenue will pay for the network's startup and maintenance costs, and possibly turn a profit that could pay for the city's other technology needs, according to Leonard Scott, program manager of the Corpus Christi Wi-Fi network.

The recently finished network will power several mobile applications, one of which is already succeeding, according to Scott. Corpus Christi implemented a home building inspection application long before finishing the network. Verizon, Cingular and Sprint installed their own medium-speed cellular equipment at various spots throughout the city where the main Wi-Fi network hadn't yet been installed.

Before the new inspection application, the city's roughly seven home building inspection processes took at least five days each to complete from the time a builder requested an inspection to the time the county approved it.

"Each one of those steps took a minimum of five days ? to have the developer make the request, get it on somebody's schedule, bring them into the office, get them the copies of the drawings, get them the copies of the regulations and code, put them in a truck, get them out to that site, survey it, come back, fill out the paperwork, route the paperwork to the supervisor for approval, get the paperwork down to the service center, have somebody notify the developer that the paperwork's ready to pick up, send somebody back to the site and post the notice on that board," said Jeffrey King, director of the utilities business unit at Northrop Grumman, the city's Wi-Fi vendor.

Now inspectors receive their work orders on Wi-Fi-enabled laptops in the morning and drive directly to their first inspection site without stopping at the office. Their laptops are equipped with all necessary documents, a digital camera and Internet access for reference materials.

Inspectors go to inspection sites, complete their inspections, take photos, fill out forms, capture signatures from various city approvers and send the information via e-mail to their supervisor, who approves it and posts it to the building division's Web site the same day, King explained. He said the application cut 35 days to 40 days out of the time it took to build a house in Corpus Christi.

Scott said the city is introducing a new mobile application that would let engineers inspect repairs of city property from their desks. On-site workers would use a Wi-Fienabled video camera to send footage back to engineers in real time. Scott said the application would raise everybody's productivity by eliminating engineers' travel time to and from repair sites.

He also noted that the citywide network gives local dial-up providers a chance to offer Wi-Fi-based services at a time when dial-up demand is vanishing. Since the network already exists, any provider wanting to transition to offering Wi-Fi-delivered Internet services would bypass the expensive network infrastructure costs normally involved.

"Estimates are, in the next three to five years, those folks will be out

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