Downtown Corpus Christi at night.
For the last couple of years the Texas city of Corpus Christi has inadvertently found itself something of a poster child for municipal Wi-Fi because of its early pilot of automated gas and water meter reading -- a Wi-Fi project they started working on in 2003.
"We were working on this pilot and suddenly found ourselves quite the center of attention, no so much by choice," explained Leonard Scott, MIS Business Unit Manager for Corpus Christi. "But people began seeing what we were doing with Wi-Fi."
Using automated meter reading (AMR) as the application to launch Wi-Fi made a great deal of sense for Corpus Christi. As a medium size city with a population about 280,000, it took considerable effort and expense to send people out each month to read water and gas meters -- not to mention such annoyances as attacks from dogs or problems with easements. "We thought there has got to be a better way to do this," explained Scott.
The AMR pilots launched in two different sections of the city proved that indeed the better way was all they could hope for and more. Not only did they have accurate readings every month, but actually had two meter readings per day from each residential gas and water meter. This gave them the ability to track usage and offer much better customer service. "We even have the capability, if somebody is using an inordinate amount of water or gas, of giving them a direct call and giving them a heads up that there may be a problem in that area," said Scott.
The city has also successfully integrated automated readings into their utility billing system so that they are issuing accurate monthly statements to all customers in the pilot.
The success of the pilot means that the city will now be rolling out automated meters throughout the entire city over the next five years. And mobile workers made redundant by AMR are being moved into other areas of city operation.
However, the vision for Wi-Fi in Corpus Christi extends far beyond AMR. With the deployment of Wi-Fi access nodes -- first 300 hundred and now expanded to 800 nodes that so far reach 85 percent of the city's population -- there was now much available bandwidth for a host of other applications.
Corpus Christi is now exploring other many other possibilities that could have significant impact on both city operations and the lives of citizens. "The City of Corpus Christi -- the elected officials and the administration -- have collectively viewed this as the new infrastructure of the 21st century," Scott explained. "We really haven't had a new infrastructure come along for the last 100 or 150 years. So we see this as an infrastructure and as a terrific way to stimulate economic development and to communicate with the citizens in our area."
This view has prompted city officials to cast a wide net in their investigation and evaluation of the next Wi-Fi applications they might deploy. At the same time, they sought to develop partnerships to attract outside firms to conduct commerce and to assist the city to make money and to defer the cost of the network initially deployed at city expense.
However, rather than adopting the usual approach of selecting one, or even a handful of partners, the city wanted to encourage as much involvement as possible from other governmental agencies as well as from non-profit and private institutions. The more partners on board, the better, according to city manager George "Skip" Noe. "In many ways, I think we are breaking new ground in terms of how we are approaching this," Noe explained in an interview last year.
"Our goal was not to provide service down to the individual customer," he
added. "That we feel would be better done by the private sector. So the question for us is how to leverage the assets that currently exist predominately for city use, but in a way that also achieves maximum benefit for the entire community."
The investigation of other immediate city uses -- a process Scott described as looking for low-hanging fruit -- has resulted in a great many possibilities clearly identified, in areas such as mobile workers, code enforcement engineering, public works and utilities, and public safety. Some of these the city is now actively moving on.
"We find that the Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) system under Wi-Fi is a real time AVL," said Scott. "When we set up our public safety vehicles with this, we know immediately where they are at all times."
As well, for first responders and for port authorities, video surveillance is proving of significant benefit. "Keeping track of what's going on at the city reservoirs and dams, on other city properties, in high crime areas and high accident impact areas has really been a benefit," said Scott. "This is something that is really exciting to first responders -- to be able to connect to cameras wirelessly inside a bank when there is a bank robbery, or to cameras inside a large high rise building where we may have an emergency that our fire personnel responding to."
The city is also exploring the possibility of replacing the many cell phones for city employees with Voice over IP phones as way of saving money.
About 80 percent of their traffic signals are connected by fiber, something that greatly assisted in deploying Wi-Fi access nodes. However, Wi-Fi will now allow them to connect the other 20 percent of traffic lights that are not connected by fiber.
One significant development is the overhaul of the building inspection process in Corpus Christi. "Prior to implementing this program there were generally seven levels of inspection in the building inspection process and that process took from 30 to 50 days in the manual mode," explained Scott. "That of course it was terribly frustrating to builders and inspectors both."
By giving inspectors Wi-Fi access in the field, that process has been reduced to between 10 to 15 days. This, according to Scott, can save builders as much as 25 percent of the time it takes to build a home. "Time is money and so this is a saving that gets passed back to the builders and ultimately to the folks who are having homes built or who are purchasing new homes," said Scott.
In the health area, the city is now working on a program that will provide HIPAA data to ER doctors and emergency responders for those who have signed the appropriate release form. "Vital information about a patient's condition, along with video, will be available for the emergency room doctor while a patient is in transit," said Scott. "Not only will this save precious time in a medical emergency, but it is also certainly a must for major natural disasters and homeland security incidents."
In the area of digital inclusion, the Wi-Fi network will play a part in ensuring that the students who are given laptops by schools are able to connect to the Internet at home. This access will mean, among other things, that both students and parents can access lesson plans, homework assignment, and other school information.
And there are other developments on the horizon as the city brings more partners to the table, a process that is on going.
Corpus Christi inadvertently found itself somewhat in the forefront of the municipal wireless movement. But what they have done since then, both in terms of fashioning a vision and exploring how the benefits of Wi-Fi could be maximized for the city, has definitely elevated this community to a new plateau of leadership. Fortunately for the rest of us, the senior city officials involved with their Wi-Fi initiatives have also taken a tremendous amount of time to share what they have learned with other municipalities.
So while there may be other higher profile Wi-Fi initiatives, such as Philadelphia or San Francisco, Corpus Christi nevertheless continues to lead in this arena in many different ways.
Photo Downtown Corpus Christi at Night by Lejflo. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License v. 2.5.