Hiring new management
Chaska, Minn. — one of the first communities in the nation to build and operate a citywide wireless broadband network — began outsourcing the network’s administration this year. By paying a contractor to support and manage the service, city staff can focus on other tasks, including expanding the network subscriber base, while the contractor improves reliability and customer service.
In 1998, Chaska, a suburban community located near the Twin Cities, created chaska.net, a wireless Internet service that covered the 16-square-mile city. By 2004, demand for the service among the community’s 7,500 homes and more than 18,000 residents had risen sharply. So, the city built a larger Wi-Fi network by adding MetroMesh architecture from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Tropos Networks to the service’s existing point-to-multi-point wireless backhaul connections and the city’s fiber network. Not only was Chaska one of the first communities in the country to deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network, the city also became the first to operate a municipally hosted Internet service over a meshed Wi-Fi network.
Yet as the number of subscribers grew, Chaska officials realized the city did not have enough resources to effectively support them. “We needed to improve the call center response so that customers could talk live to an operator and deal with problem resolution during the initial call,” says Noel Graczyk, administrative services director for the city.
Then, in June 2005, significant problems with the network’s performance surfaced. “There were areas of the city where the network was operating, but not to maximum efficiency,” Graczyk says. “Customers at times were not able to connect to the network, or they had a difficult time connecting.”
Residents called the support center more frequently, further straining city staff. “There were two sets of problems,” Graczyk says. “The first was related to the ongoing performance of the network. The second was related to customer usage of the network.”
As a result, customer usage issues bled into network performance issues, and the city began having trouble solving users’ problems quickly. Although Chaska made significant changes to improve performance, an obstacle remained. “The inherent problems of managing and monitoring the network on an ongoing basis and providing efficient customer support were still there,” Graczyk says.
When less than half of the customers renewed their subscriptions in 2005, city managers decided that Chaska needed a company to take over network support and monitoring. They contracted with New York-based Siemens Communications to manage the city’s Network Operations Center and provide customer service to residents for three years.
In February 2006, the company began to monitor the performance of the meshed wireless network as well as the back-end network infrastructure. Customers now enjoy expanded hours of coverage and quick resolutions to their problems, and Chaska officials believe the enhanced network service will lead to an increase in subscriptions.
Chaska launched a marketing campaign, including local news coverage and direct mail to households, to promote the improved network and customer support. “But, word of mouth is the most effective marketing,” says Dave Pokorney, city administrator. “We’re hoping customers will see a difference in service and tell others about it.”
Putting the city’s Internet service into the hands of a private contractor has given Chaska officials confidence that the city can provide its residents with affordable, high-quality Internet access. “The overriding reason we created the partnership was to take our Internet service to the next level,” Pokorney says. “We were providing good service before, but to provide great service, we needed to improve network support and management.”