Local governments nationwide have found innovative ways to leverage wireless networks to increase employee productivity, enhance public safety and improve services. Despite the benefits, however, the costs and uncertainty of the emerging technology sometimes make municipal wireless networks less attractive than wired alternatives. To determine whether a wireless network will serve their needs, local government officials should consider the following points.

  1. Purpose

    How will the wireless network be used? The type of traffic the network will carry often will dictate the network requirements and technology. Mainstream technology approaches include:

    • Cellular: A cellular wireless network is based on current cell phone towers and allows laptops to transfer data at up to 14 kilobits per second (kbps).

    • Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi networks, built on 802.11 standards, require routers with dedicated Internet connection points spread throughout a community. Wi-Fi access points provide wireless connectivity within about 100 meters of the access devices, which support a bandwidth between 54 megabits per second (Mbps) and operate on 2.4 or 5 gigahertz (GHz) frequencies.

    • WiMax: A WiMax area network, based on 802.16 standards, can provide access in a linear service area of up to 30 miles and a data rate of up to 70 Mbps.

    • Mesh: A mesh network is based on multiple standards and employs either full mesh or partial mesh connections. In the full mesh network, each computing device is connected directly to each of the others. In the partial mesh network, some devices are connected to all the others, while other devices are linked only to the devices with which they exchange the most data. A mesh network is ideal in the event of a disaster, because it offers several redundancies to decrease downtime if some connection points fail.

  2. Cost

    Local governments must consider the total coverage area, as well as the type of network that will meet their communications needs, and then weigh budget constraints against up-front costs and long-term service agreements. Costs for a wireless network covering a half-mile radius could surpass $100,000.

  3. Security requirements

    Access rights can affect network costs depending on how freely the wireless Internet service will be provided. For free public Internet use, access management costs can be relatively minimal. However, first responder networks require increased access management and security to protect confidential data, increasing expenditures.

  4. Vendor support

    Most local governments do not have all the manpower and expertise to implement a new wireless network, so it is important to identify a vendor-neutral partner who will work closely with local IT staff throughout the design, implementation, and initial operation of the network to resolve any problems.

  5. Proof of concept

    Local governments should require a pilot project before the entire network is implemented to prove that the network will provide a return on investment and will work as planned.

By taking a methodical approach to wireless network evaluation, local governments ensure they will make the best technology decisions to fit their needs.

The author is vice president of strategic sales for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based CDW Government.