Wireless at work
When US Airways flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, people across the nation rightfully praised pilot Chesley Sullenberger and the crew for protecting the life of every passenger on board. The rescue, however, would not have been complete without a multitude of emergency responders. Within 20 minutes, New York had a video system at the scene, and the Fire Department's Command Tactical Unit vehicle sent video back to its Operations Center and the Office of Emergency Management to help mobilize vehicles and organize equipment. "Having real-time data and not having to wait for the media to arrive and send back data for us helps make quicker decisions and save lives," says Nick Sbordone, director of external affairs for NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT).
The video system was possible because of New York's unprecedented, $500 million, high-speed wireless data network, known as NYCWiN, that covers all five boroughs. Just two weeks before the Hudson landing, public safety departments used the new wireless network and wireless cameras to monitor the millions of New Year revelers gathered at Times Square. (For more information on New York's network, see "Big Apple dreams big.")
The array of wireless applications available to local governments — from public safety to utilities — continues to expand, especially now that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) has set aside $4.7 billion to establish the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). At least $250 million of those funds will provide grants for "innovative programs to encourage sustainable adoption of broadband services." ARRA also directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Development Office to disburse $2.5 billion for broadband development in rural areas. "President Obama's commitment to expanding broadband services to rural areas will provide rural communities with access to worldwide markets and the education, first responder and health care resources they need to prosper and compete," said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in launching the joint broadband initiative under ARRA in March.
Ponca City, Okla., is using a citywide wireless broadband network to make city employees' jobs more efficient and effective. But, it's also using the network as an economic development tool for residents and businesses, many of who did not previously have high-speed broadband access. "We're hoping to allow North Central Oklahoma to be more technology-based," says Ponca City Mayor Homer Nicholson. "What we're finding is that today's farmer or rancher wants to be just as connected as the people in the city." Some of those individuals sell horses or food online and find it difficult to compete using dial-up. "If outside the city prospers, the inside prospers." (For more information on Ponca City's network, see "Small town goes high-tech.")
For local governments with commercial carriers already offering wireless access to residents, it typically does not make sense for them to provide public wireless service, too. "Is that the core competency for local governments?" asks Mark Crosby, president of the Gettysburg, Pa.-based Enterprise Wireless Alliance. "It's not going to be a good source of revenue for counties." But, as Ponca City illustrates, if the service is unavailable to a considerable percentage of residents, establishing a network is possible and could offer a valuable public service. After launching the network a few months ago, the municipality of 26,000 residents already has 3,000 users.
TELLING … AND SHOWING
When it comes to wireless applications for use within local government, cities and counties are focusing on data transfer, so employees can access maps, criminal records and much more while they are in the field. The technology is fostering collaboration among various departments and increasing "situational awareness" for public safety departments.
"Everyone's best interest in the public safety world is to increase capability," says Steve Wisely, director of Communications Center and 911 services for the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). "Interoperability is a buzz word associated with radio and voice communications, but it's becoming increasingly evident that data interoperability is as important or more important than voice."
For instance, envision the first team of firefighters arriving at a blaze. Before entering the building, they can view the situation on wireless network-connected laptops from multiple angles using GIS for mapping and 3-D aerial imagery. GPS, meanwhile, helps the responders locate assets, such as additional fire trucks and other equipment, and determine when they will arrive. Technology also is now available to monitor a firefighter's breathing apparatus and how much air is left. Soon, units will be able to track a firefighter's location in the building, making it easier to rescue them if they go down, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va., and chair of the Fairfax, Va.-based International Association of Fire Chief's Technology Council.
While voice communication is still vital, Wisely says that less talking can sometimes help responders better assess a situation. Rather than firefighters or EMS responders having to listen to information and take notes during an emergency, they can review information on a laptop and interpret it for themselves.
Collaboration between departments, cities and other organizations — even universities and hospitals — means more data to share and more resources to pool to fund broadband wireless network implementation and maintenance. Using a broadband network, information as well as text updates can transfer to people with authorization. "It's the best way to encourage interoperability that they have," Werner says.
While agencies see the need to cooperate over larger communications networks, they also want to be able to restrict a certain amount of information. Individual networks can secure data sets they do not want shared. For example, Anaheim, Calif., is using a wireless mesh network to collect readings from residential electric meters. When residents sign up for electric service, they typically have to provide a Social Security and driver's license number, information that is highly secured, says Steve Nees, the city's technology development manager. The police sometimes want access to that information, but it is not shared with them.
Two of the first steps in building a wireless network are creating a security model so agencies know which critical data should not be shared and a governance model outlining how the network will run, Sbordone says. With NYCWiN, DoITT ensured that the needs of the various agencies, including fire, police and the department of transportation, were met. "They all have different needs," Sbordone adds. "That's the largest challenge."
A LITTLE HELP, PLEASE
While wireless applications can change the way local governments operate, they require a considerable amount of bandwidth, which many cities and counties cannot afford. Money from the stimulus package and creating a nationwide public safety broadband network, could improve that situation, though.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission attempted to auction a portion of the 700 MHz spectrum, which would have created a nationwide broadband network intended to cover 99.3 percent of the population by 2019. The partnership between the commercial auction winner and the Public Safety Broadband Licensee would have been funded by subscribers and would have given public safety priority access to the spectrum during emergencies. That priority would allow voice, video and data to be sent quickly between agencies and departments without getting kicked off the network, which proved to be a problem during 9/11 rescue efforts. "A lot of organizations were hoping this would be a good national network for large and small communities," Werner says. "The gaps are getting bigger for the haves and have-nots. In the commercial world, if the population isn't there, then the networks aren't built. Something all-encompassing would have made sure everyone had coverage."
No bidders, however, met the required minimum. With President Obama now in office, an FCC chairman has to be appointed and confirmed before the issue will be revisited.
But, not all local governments are on board. "Since [the auction], some in public safety are saying that they don't want to be part of a national network and want something in their own region," Crosby says. Their argument is that emergencies are usually local and that there isn't a need for a national network. Crosby still sees the objective as "admirable and long overdue. But, the bottom line is that building out a national interoperable network is going to cost $30 billion," he adds.
Until then, as local governments build networks on their own, they will have to continue looking for financing. In addition to the ARRA funds, which will not be available to everyone, local governments can turn to grants. One tip for improving chances of funding is to address interoperability, which more and more grantees are evaluating. Also, a grant specialist who is up-to-date on the stimulus funds and other grants can help work regionally with other localities to go after the money.
Paying for the initial infrastructure is not enough, however. Cities need to consider how they will maintain the systems and pay for equipment updates, a detail that many grant applications require. "The key is that you need the funding for the system, but also have to be able to continue the sustainability," Werner says.
Regardless of the technological gap between local governments caused by funding and other factors, residents do not always gauge their expectations appropriately, especially as they learn about what is being done with wireless technology in other areas and even in business. A key job for local officials is to realistically manage those expectations. Even within local government, sometimes police will expect that mug shots can be sent to their in-vehicle laptops, but the network between the communications center and squad car may be a slow mobile network.
Tracking calls from cell phones has been a challenge for 911 and communication centers, Wisely says. An estimated one out of six homes does not have a landline, and up to 70 percent of 911 calls come from cell phones. Identifying the cell phone caller's location can be up to 150 meters off, which is about two blocks in any direction. Through its Project LOCATE, APCO representatives have testified before Congress, tested cell phone location accuracy when calling 911, and compiled information on how to inform residents about what they can and cannot do with their cell phones when calling in an emergency.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
At a time when residents and businesses are becoming more dependent on technology and local governments are looking for ways to increase efficiencies and save money, wireless applications are becoming increasingly appealing options, regardless of their potential hiccups. Of course, in the current economy, funding is a greater obstacle than even local governments are accustomed to.
The conversation, however, continues to shift from the issue of whether the technologies will disrupt current protocol and whether they are worth the trouble to do what cities and counties need to do to make them happen. Consider the support for Ponca City's wireless network: "This was the fastest project to be presented to the commission, approved, funded and gotten online," Nicholson says. "If we said we needed to bury a line, someone would do it right away and pour the concrete. The city knew [the wireless network] would benefit all departments and the residents."
- Big Apple dreams big — New York City
- Small town goes high-tech — Ponca City, Okla.
- Bringing the Internet to low-income residents — San Francisco
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.
Big Apple dreams big
Project: Citywide wireless network
Jurisdiction: New York City
Agency: Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications
Vendor: Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman
Cost: $500 million
With requests for proposals first issued nearly five years ago, New York's $500 million, citywide wireless network, known as NYCWiN, is now up and running. Covering 90 percent of New York's 315 square miles, NYCWiN is being used by more than 50 city agencies for a range of wireless applications.
Public safety employees, for instance, remotely access state and federal databases containing anti-crime and anti-terrorism information like mug shots and fingerprints. The Department of Sanitation is using automatic vehicle location technology to more efficiently manage fleets for waste collection and snow removal. And, the Department of Environmental Protection is providing residents with more detailed water-use information using an automated meter reading system.
"One of the greatest applications is to stream video and achieve interoperability through that video, which can be sent to fire, the Department of Emergency Management or city hall," says Steve Hart, associate commissioner for wireless technology. The ability to share incident video is helping employees better handle situations, whether they involve a planned visit from the pope, an emergency plane landing or a crane collapse, he adds.
In creating the roadmap for NYCWiN, the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT) worked with key agencies to evaluate their needs and develop a network that would accommodate them all. "Being the IT and communications organization, we helped make sure everyone was being represented," says Nick Sbordone, DoITT's director of external affairs.
As part of its contract, Northrop Grumman, which handled the $300 million network construction (the remaining $200 million is allocated for maintenance, devices and licenses), now is working on a refresh of NYCWiN to be completed by the end of the year. The update will increase the network's speed and enhance city agencies' ability to access more information in the field when and where they need it, Hart says.
Small town goes high-tech
Project: Public wireless broadband network
Jurisdiction: Ponca City, Okla.
Vendor: Morris Township, N.J.-based Honeywell
Date completed: November 2008
What began as an automatic reader system for Ponca City, Okla.'s utility meters has expanded into a citywide wireless broadband network that is providing free access for all residents and businesses. The $17 million reader system required the city to install nearly 140 miles of fiber optic cable that, in turn, served as the backbone for an additional $2.5-million Wi-Fi system, jointly funded by several city departments. "We considered charging residents for the service, but since they paid for the backbone, we decided to give it to them for free," says Mayor Homer Nicholson. "It's a dividend on their investment."
The high-speed, high-capacity mesh network implemented by Honeywell boasts 490 wireless nodes and gateways and provides 100 percent coverage anywhere in town. If one radio node goes down, the wireless signal is routed to another one, ensuring uninterrupted communication. Also, a management system can run 1,000 different reports and issue an alert if a problem occurs.
City officials also expect the network to save money, including a reduction of $1.3 million in annual operating costs for it utility program. The estimated 75 percent of city employees who work outside — including street, electric, water and energy employees — now can stay in the field longer and access data and write reports using the network.
The city is expanding the network to encompass all of Kay County, including more rural areas. By law, Ponca City cannot provide wireless access for free to those areas, but will charge less than what residents currently are paying for dial-up. "Today's users are growing up with this stuff and expecting it," Nicholson says. "We're lucky that we can provide future leadership with technology and education. They don't need to leave to experience that technology; it's here in Central Oklahoma."
Bringing the Internet to low-income residents
Project: Wireless Internet access for low-income residents
Jurisdiction: San Francisco
Agency: Department of Technology
Vendor: Locally based Meraki
Internet access for San Francisco residents in low-income housing is about much more than watching wacky animal videos on YouTube. It's about the opportunity to search and train for jobs, help children with homework and stay connected to the rest of the community. "Kids without Internet access in high school are behind their peers," says Michael McCarthy, community broadband manager for the San Francisco Department of Technology.
Through the city's TechConnect program, the Department of Technology has provided 3,700 housing units with free Internet access. Using the city's fiber optic network as a backbone, the department builds wireless networks for low-income housing units. For instance, when the department pulls optical fiber for a police camera, there may be "dark" or unused fiber available for a wireless network. "I try to capitalize on that as much as possible," McCarthy says.
In addition, Washington-based nonprofit One Economy used ATT Foundation Funds to build a network at one housing site. And, locally based Meraki, through its "Free the Net" initiative, is using San Francisco as a demonstration project and funding the cost of building a wireless network across the city. Using volunteers to help install repeaters, the company is helping bring access to even more units.
McCarthy points out that the first step is providing access for residents. The more difficult part is training and supporting them, which is why community partners are important. Many of the housing sites contain technology centers, where volunteers teach residents — sometimes in four different languages — how to e-mail and use Web resources like Google Maps and Craigslist.
Through TechConnect, the department also is giving residents refurbished computers to help them make the most of the network. "We're not meeting the full need," McCarthy says. "But we are doing what we can with limited funds."