Wireless Cities
By Kevin Werbach, Tue Oct 26 08:15:00 GMT 2004

Police. Electricity. Schools. Trash collection. Road maintenance. Parks. Wireless connectivity. Wireless connectivity???

At first glance, wireless connectivity seems out of place in a list of municipal services. Think again. A growing number of city governments believe that city-wide wireless Internet access should be provided, at least in part, as a public utility. Upon further examination, the spate of municipal wireless plans offer both less and more than meets the eye. They just might, however, become the missing link that makes possible an alternative infrastructure for the mobile Internet.

The city governments are generally proposing to deploy some version of Wi-Fi throughout their entire municipal area. Wi-Fi meshes have been deployed on corporate and university campuses, and in the downtown shopping areas of cities such as Palo Alto. A few relatively small communities, such as Chaska, Minnesota and Cerritos, California, announced citywide Wi-Fi projects earlier this year. None of these, however, generated the attention of the recent spate of announcements.

Philadelphia kicked off the municipal Wi-Fi avalanche with the formation in late August of Wireless Philadelphia, a committee responsible for developing a proposal to cover all 135 square miles and 1.5 million residents of the city with Wi-Fi. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom responded this month with a commitment to free Wi-Fi access for every city resident. And if that wasn't enough, the government of Taiwan announced plans to begin deploying a billion-dollar Wi-Fi wireless mesh next year that would cover the entire island.

What do governments hope to get out of their efforts? Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff emphasizes the importance of making the benefits of wireless Internet connectivity available to all, just as the Web took the Internet beyond the small community of scientists, military personnel and academics. Like many big cities, Philadelphia is struggling to reinvigorate inner-city neighborhoods and to bring the benefits of technology to all residents. For example, the city is working to give all 265 Philadelphia schools Internet access, but the full educational benefits of that connectivity will only be realized when students and their parents can access the same online resources at home. With wired broadband connections still too sparse or expensive in lower-income neighborhoods, a municipal wireless broadband network could help fill the gaps.

Neff ticks off other usage scenarios. A cheap webcam in a store window could use the wireless connection to provide remote video surveillance for small shops confronting theft problems. City building inspectors, who already save two hours per day using handheld PDAs to fill out forms, could become even more efficient with the ability to send documents and access information in real time. With the same real-time capabilities, the city could shorten its ongoing process of revaluing more than half a million real-estate parcels for tax purposes from five years to two. Tourists are tired of paying repeatedly for wireless connections in the airport, hotels and other areas, and still receiving coverage only in limited fixed locations. As more handheld devices and mobile phones incorporate Wi-Fi connectivity, the city or private parties could create personal "tours" of city landmarks, including major historical sites and local attractions like Philadelphia's hundreds of public murals.

Of course, none of this comes for free. Philadelphia estimates ubiquitous coverage will require eight to sixteen base stations per square mile, depending on topography and obstacles like buildings. That works out to approximately $60,000 per square mile in capital costs, or $7 to $10 million for the City of Philadelphia. The city estimates ongoing annual maintenance costs of $1.5 million per year. That may sound significant, but keep in mind that Philadelphia already spends $50 million per year for 800 MHz wireless networks to support public safety radios for the police and fire department. Neff emphasizes that the city is seeking a public-private partnership, rather than building and operating the entire project itself. It is considering various funding mechanisms, including charging for some services.

That's where the analogy to parks and road maintenance comes in. As Neff points out, municipalities and other government entities are good at providing foundational infrastructure, which the private sector builds upon. "It's like when [the government] built roads, they brought you to a destination. They didn't get you inside the building or the office. If you have the infrastructure there, you provide the opportunity for building to provide services," she explains. Cities have two unique assets: physical infrastructure such as light poles that can make ubiquitous coverage possible, and a willingness to provide baseline connectivity in areas where there might not be positive return on investment for a private service provider. The private sector can do the rest.

Cities can't, however, overcome the laws of physics. Wi-Fi is still Wi-Fi, a short-range technology designed for local area networks, and it still uses unlicensed frequencies where there is no legal protection against interference. As a result, municipal wireless networks won't be a direct substitute for either wired broadband connections to the home or wide-area 3G wireless data networks. Reception in buildings will be spotty to non-existent, coverage will be far from perfect, and speeds will likely be relatively low due to limited backhaul at the other end.

Nonetheless, municipal wireless networks may turn out to be a significant enabler for commercial mobile wireless services. Given the low costs of equipment, there are reasonable business models for deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots in high-traffic locations like hotels, parks, and cafes. More and more handsets will be able to tap in to those wireless networks, for both data and voice over IP connectivity. The missing link is coverage elsewhere.

Municipal Wi-Fi networks, enhanced with indoor repeaters which will reflect outdoor signals into homes and buildings, could fill that gap. Service won’t be perfect, but it could be much cheaper than the licensed 3G alternatives. If this scenario pans out -- and it will take a few years -- there could be two forms of wireless connectivity competing in major cities. One would be the carrier 3G infrastructure, offering reliability but involving high prices and limited flexibility for users. The other would be rougher around the edges, but cheaper and serving as a platform for more diverse applications. Both can probably thrive, but one depends on a helping hand from cities. It's looking more and more likely that cities will extend that hand.