Building boom for Wi-Fi networks

Municipalities deploy mesh and WiMAX to connect their communities.

In early 2004 Chaska, Minn., objected to the prices of local DSL and cable services and deployed a broadband wireless network for its citizens. The Minneapolis exurb of 20,000 dug $1 million out of its capital improvement budget, built a Tropos Wi-Fi mesh and set itself up as a wireless ISP.

There were no precedents in early 2004 when Chaska, Minn., got fed up with the prices of local DSL and cable services and deployed a broadband wireless network for its citizens. The Minneapolis exurb of 20,000 dug $1 million out of its capital-improvement budget, built a Tropos Wi-Fi mesh and set itself up as a wireless ISP.

This ripple in the pond of municipal infrastructure advancements quickly became a tsunami. By the middle of last year, noted that it was "raining RFPs," and The Yankee Group analyst Lindsay Schroth estimates there are some 320 U.S. municipalities that have or are planning to cover themselves with broadband wireless networks.

Zero to 320 in less than two years is remarkable, given that local governments tend to lag rather than lead technology advances. However, U.S. cities large and small see the unmatched economy, mobility and application benefits of an unplugged last-mile solution, and are employing a variety of business models and architectures to get them.


  • About 320 cities have or are planning broadband wireless networks, according to an estimate from The Yankee Group.
  • Once it becomes more affordable, WiMAX is poised to overtake Wi-Fi as the dominant municipal broadband wireless technology, predicts Robert St. Louis of Arizona State University.
  • The Yankee Group forecasts worldwide capital investment in municipal wireless broadband networks will reach $400 million in 2007, up from a forecasted $170.94 million this year.

The best approach depends on local circumstances, but Schroth sees some kind of public/private partnership as "an absolute must. Government doesn't have the capability to build, market and deliver innovative services. A better approach is for a service provider to build a wholesale network with a city as its anchor tenant," she says.

No service provider stepped up to the plate in Chaska, but larger cities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco have no dearth of suitors for their proposed municipal networks. Philadelphia struck an agreement last October for EarthLink to blanket the city with a broadband wireless infrastructure, deploying a Wi-Fi mesh for service delivery and using WiMAX backhaul.

The plan has competing wireless ISPs (WISP) joining city-owned Wireless Philadelphia as EarthLink tenants, with WP getting a percentage of the fees. Philadelphia also expects annual savings of about $2 million from replacing dial-up access and T-1 links used by field crews and remote facilities.

Meanwhile, smaller cities have been beating their big-city cousins to the punch, following Chaska's lead and building their own networks. Fort Worth, Texas, exurb Granbury was using broadband wireless to connect city buildings, and wanted high-speed access for laptops that a Homeland Security grant had put in its police cars.

However, Texas municipalities can't be ISPs, so Granbury is partnering with local WISP Frontier Broadband. Frontier operates the Tropos-based network, using virtual LANs (VLAN) to separate public Internet access from the city's official traffic.

On the Gulf coast, Corpus Christi was looking to leverage about 70 miles of fiber interconnecting its traffic signals. In February 2004 the city covered 24 of its 147 square miles with a Wi-Fi mesh that uses Alvarion's pre-WiMAX technology for backhaul when direct fiber connections aren't available. The rest of the buildout is scheduled for completion in August, for a total cost of $7.1 million. The infrastructure's excess capacity is sold to local ISPs.

"This provides more of a level playing field to innovative ISPs who don't have or can't afford to build their own infrastructures," says Leonard Scott, an MIS business unit manager for Corpus Christi. "The result is more varied and competitive offerings to city residents."

South Sioux City, Neb., a suburb of Sioux City, Iowa, has taken WiMAX a step further by rejecting Wi-Fi for a mobile pre-WiMAX solution from NextNet. Like Granbury, South Sioux City got a grant for police car laptops, and wanted to provide them with high-speed access. Officers got a taste of this when they drove through one of the city's Wi-Fi hot spots, but elsewhere they had to communicate at a frustrating 9600 baud.

In August 2004, the city used reserve utility funds to install four base stations on each of two water towers, leveraging its existing fiber infrastructure for backhaul. The wireless network is operated by partner EverTek, which carries government traffic on one VLAN and sells public Internet access on another, returning 15% of that revenue to the city.

South Sioux City also plans to test fiber to the home, but broadband wireless "is clearly the cost-effective last-mile choice right now, and it also provides a huge amount of flexibility for applications," says Lance Martin, communications coordinator for South Sioux City.

Initial municipal applications include public safety, automated utility meter reading and inspection services.

In South Sioux City, images captured by some 125 surveillance cameras can be viewed remotely on laptops in police cruisers and by dispatchers. An automatic vehicle location (AVL) application constantly transmits location information, enabling the city to see where each car is in real time. If police are chasing a suspect who tosses evidence out the window, a screen tap pinpoints the location while the pursuit continues.

The AVL application also could help the public deal with inclement weather. During snowstorms, a track of "breadcrumbs" on the city's Web site would show which streets have been plowed. Similarly, children could watch the progress of school buses from the warmth of their homes and emerge no sooner than necessary.

High-speed mobile access also is streamlining building inspection services. Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff reckons it can save her city about two hours per day, per inspector, which will clear permits faster.

And it should, if Corpus Christi's experience is any indication. Inspectors now use high-speed access to begin the reporting process in the field, saving labor and reducing by 25% the time it takes to put up a new building, Scott reports.

Application ideas abound as initial deployments meet or exceed expectations and cities look to leverage and expand them. These include telemetry systems for controlling and monitoring pump houses, water towers and electrical substations. The networks also provide a more flexible and cost-effective platform for prisoner-release programs that utilize ankle-bracelet monitoring.

"Mobile broadband wireless is a revolutionary technology that will have as much impact as the Web did in the 1990s on how we live, work and play in the 21st century," Neff concludes.

Breidenbach is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev. She can be reached at

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