Municipal broadband networks have taken on a new meaning since they were first introduced four years ago. While many cities once had a vision of offering residents free or significantly reduced-cost Internet access, that model proved to be unsustainable. Today many cities have turned to broadband networks as a way to automate municipal functions and provide critical access to a number of city workers.

For example, Los Angeles County's Department of Public Works is using a wireless system from Proxim and Systems Integrated that controls traffic signals across the county. The wireless radio installation is part of its Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) program designed to reduce smog and traffic congestion. The county recently won a 2009 National Association of Counties' Achievement Award for its new system.

Jane White, senior civil engineer with Los Angeles County's Department of Public Works' Traffic & Lighting Division, says the county estimates that the technology, which connects 1,000 traffic intersections, has saved its program $7 million over traditional copper or fiber-optic installations. Further, the county is saving about $708,000 annually over the cost of leased telephone lines.

"The biggest advantage of communicating with signals is (the ability) to monitor them for signal malfunctions and change traffic signal timing from the management center," White says. "Previously, we had to travel and punch in information at the location." White says the county is halfway through its project, initially connecting county-maintained locations and now moving into cities.

Oklahoma City launched a mesh WiFi broadband network in 2006 that covers 95 percent of the city's 620 square miles. Initially built for public-safety users, it is now a major network used by a significant number of city departments, including public safety, public works and transportation. More than 200 applications are concurrently running over the system, which uses equipment from Tropos Networks.

Steve Eaton, information security architect for Oklahoma City says the city estimates it has derived some $10 million in value from the system, primarily because it doesn't have to buy commercial services.

"The network is paid for, and it's significantly cheaper than trying to purchase service using wireless data cards," says Eaton.

Eaton adds that the city has not ruled out offering free WiFi to the public — the original vision of most muni-WiFi projects — but is still determining what impact free users would have on the network. "We're still learning and growing with the system," he says.

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the newer uses of broadband is found in New York City, where Northrop Grumman deployed a mobile broadband network with the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT), which serves multiple government agencies, from first responders to transportation districts looking to control light signals.

Northrop Grumman built and now operates the mobile broadband network, on behalf of the city. The network initially was designed and engineered to improve public-safety communications, but has evolved to serve multiple agencies and applications.

Using the system, first responders can look up fingerprints, mug shots, city maps, automatic vehicle location information and access full-motion streaming video. In the meantime, the water department automatically reads water meters and the sanitation department keeps track of its trucks using the automated vehicle location feature.

Traffic control is a key area for the network as the city aims to manage traffic lights according to time-of-day and congestion patterns. The city government expects to deploy more than 2,400 wireless traffic light modems throughout the city next year.

Oklahoma City's Eaton says it's easy for municipalities looking to unwire their cities to try and do too much at once. "You can dream up (an) unbelievable amount of things you can do with these networks," he says. "But you'll never accomplish them unless you take a small subset and make them work."

Eaton recommends cities considering using wireless broadband networks to determine which applications will save time and money. Adding CCTV and other bandwidth-intensive applications from the beginning might not be the best use of resources, he says.

Eaton says his department was flooded with requests from other departments wanting to use the network once the city deployed the WiFi system. First the city had to guarantee that public-safety traffic would take priority, then it tested those applications that it thought would benefit government functions the most. As a result, public-works inspectors quickly were given remote Internet access to make building inspections more efficient. They saved three days' worth of work for each inspection.

Craig Settles, head of Successful.com and municipal consultant, said many times a point person, such as the city CIO, must "slay the interdepartmental rivalry" that often occurs when a number of departments want wireless access.

"Someone has to be the point person and be smart enough to know when to push or let people come aboard," Settles says. "It's not always easy."

Lynnette Luna is a contributing writer to Urgent Communications, a sister publication to Government Product News.

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