May 23, 2007 By Blake Harris
Throughout the first day of the Wireless Internet Institute's (W2i) two day conference in Chicago, common themes ran through many of the presentations and roundtable discussions in what I have come to think of as "municipal wireless beyond the hype."
First, experience in deploying networks to date has driven home the fact that these networks are more difficult to deploy than some municipalities have been led to believe, especially if a network is to perform reliably. Expectations need to be managed far better than has been done in the past.
Second, the role that municipalities need to play is becoming increasingly clear. If a community is simply looking for some vendor to come in and build the network for free in exchange for mounting rights and little else, then many smaller communities are going to be waiting a long, long time for wireless Internet access.
The thing is, there are obvious efficiencies and performance improvements to be gained when a municipality harnesses even just a few of the many possible wireless applications. Video surveillance in a community can not only increase the effectiveness of existing police resources, but can actually reduce crime far more effectively that would be accomplished by putting more police officers into an area. And there are other homeland security benefits.
When building inspectors have full access to the information back at the office, the inspection process becomes faster and more efficient. And this impacts not only on the speed and efficiency of inspectors, but also benefits the construction industry and home owners.
Automated meter reading can offer not just cost savings, but also a way to monitor usage virtually in real time.
These and the many other applications for which cities and towns can utilize a wireless network - everything from educational uses to emergency response -- are reasons enough for the deployment of a wireless network in a community.
Local governments, through an anchor tenancy or direct investments or ownership, can play the key role in bringing about robust wireless network that will serve the community in multiple ways. Once a network is there, it can then evolve into a multi-use network, including some form of public access for economic development and to address such things as the digital divide.
So some of the trends that are starting to emerge might be summed up as follows:
* There is clear recognition that applications actually drive the deployment of many of these networks. What is important is what you can do with a network and how the community ultimately will benefit as a result. This is something some of us have recognized early in the game. But this is now increasingly being echoed not just by the vendor community, but also local CIOs and other local officials attending the conference.
* There is increasing recognition that what is important is not just getting a network deployed as fast as possible, but getting it deployed right so that it works as it should.
* There is also increasing recognition that governments are going to have to invest money into these networks in some fashion. However, there is certainly enough value simply from government usage perspectives to fully justify such investments in many cases.
* No matter what the impetus or basis is for deploying a network initially, it is expected that hybrid networks serving multiple users will likely become the norm as we move forward.
* Digital inclusion still is a moving target in that a clear definition is still emerging. It certainly is not limited to disadvantaged kids, but also must include seniors, the disable, and families who might have numerous access needs.
As one has come to expect from a W2i conference, the presentations and the numerous roundtables are informed and relevant, especially when you get a number of local CIOs around the table. But the success of the conference is perhaps marked by what Daniel Aghion, executive director of the Wireless Internet Institute says is the new metric he is using to judge the success of W2i events. "We have 45 to 50 attendees from new jurisdictions here," he explained. "That is now what we are watching closely - how many new CIOs and other municipal representatives are coming for the first time to participate in the sessions and learn from their peers."