January 19, 2007 By Peter Collins
Austin has a number of years of experience with public safety wireless. In the last four years, however, the city has embarked on public access Wi-Fi. In that time, the city has seen two generations of the technology and has learned a lot about its costs and capabilities.
Public access Wi-Fi began in Austin as a result of a push from city libraries. The libraries had received donated equipment and were providing access via their network, which was hosted by commercial Internet service providers (ISPs). They wanted to use the city's network to offer public Internet access. I was concerned about network security, however, so my security and networking groups found a solution that leveraged the city's fiber and Internet connection while keeping the networks separate.
I realized the network could be used for more than just the libraries, so the city partnered with the nonprofit group Austin Wireless City Project and used donated or surplus equipment to install hotspots around Austin. Several downtown parks and city buildings offered access, and it was popular from the beginning. Much of the city's business is done through its Web site and often, citizens needed Internet access in city facilities. We wanted to leverage city resources to facilitate citizen interaction with local government.
A large donation from Cisco to the World Congress on IT (WCIT) offered a complete upgrade. The city provided the poles, installation, networking and Internet connection, and Cisco supplied cutting-edge radios that don't need a network access point for every wireless access point, which expands the coverage area. A swath of downtown was done for the May 2006 WCIT conference, and more areas are scheduled for completion by February 2007.
The city avoids the signal strength issues that wireless providers have in penetrating buildings by only targeting outside locations. If it bleeds into anyone's house or business, that is a complete accident.
With the phenomenal speed of digital convergence of voice and data over cell phones, I believe Wi-Fi is a sunset technology. For Wi-Fi, the bandwidth is there, but the coverage is not.
For the true benefits of wireless to be realized, the access must be where the people are. Wi-Fi doesn't and couldn't cover the amount of square miles needed for city applications. Inspectors, for example, inspect restaurants, buildings and development work everywhere in our jurisdiction. Using cellular cards in tablet PCs and allowing them to input the data directly into the central database is far more functional than requiring them to drive to another location to upload data.
One could argue that Wi-Fi or WiMAX mesh technology would provide the coverage, for at least places as small as Austin. However, the city is just at its second generation of wireless for public access, and we've already had to replace all the devices to provide the additional coverage, remote maintenance and monitoring. With the first-generation hotspots, we learned quickly that remote management and monitoring was essential to lower the total cost of ownership. The city, like others, made the mistake of being seduced by Wi-Fi's low entry costs, however, maintenance soon became expensive. I knew we needed to do something different, but the money just wasn't there.
Cisco's donation came at the right time, and it came with remote management and monitoring. For the third generation of public access wireless, however, the city won't be able to handle the service internally. We need to keep focused on delivering the city's core business and not out doing maintenance on more and more remote pole locations. This is where the focus of a commercial broadband wireless carrier is critical.
The next question is how the city will continue to support free wireless. For now, the city will use combined hotspot and mesh technology to expand coverage where it makes sense. We will also continue to let public safety push the limits of wireless technology. All of our breakthroughs in wireless so far have come from the need to protect our citizens. If we can leverage our infrastructure in the future to expand public access wireless, we will do so. Remember when you paid for Internet access by the minute? Broadband wireless providers are already pricing all-you-can-use plans for data. Once the obstacles of price, service and bandwidth are solved, broadband wireless will eclipse Wi-Fi in the marketplace and in public access wireless.