Interview: CIO Richard Lewis on Houston's Wireless Initiative

Richard Lewis, CIO of the City of Houston, discussed some of the background and strategy behind their wireless initiative RFP.

by / March 9, 2006

The Greater Houston Partnership formed a Technology Infrastructure Task Force, composed of senior executives from the area's business, educational, medical and social/nonprofit enterprises, which meet over the first nine months of 2005. Among other things, the task force concluded in a white paper that Houston needed a cost-effective, high-speed, seamless wireless infrastructure and that everyone across the region needed access to affordable high-speed Internet. Following this, in October 2005, Houston Mayor Bill White formally announced an initiative to make wireless broadband services available throughout the City. The city has now issued two draft RFPs for comment and plans to issue a final version March 17, 2006. Richard Lewis, CIO of the City of Houston, discussed some of the background and strategy behind the RFP with Digital Communities.

Q: Perhaps you could begin by summarizing the wireless vision for Houston?

A: Well, the conclusions that were reached by the Technology Infrastructure Task Force of the Greater Houston Partnership were that we needed to have wireless access all across the region, that it needed to be affordable, and that it was vital to health care, public safety, transportation and economic development. And they suggest that this be done through a collaboration between government and business. I think that was a pretty significant statement to make and I think it probably makes Houston a little bit unique in terms of the wireless infrastructure initiative. I don't think other cities have had the business community come up and say you really need to do this.

Q: Plus the focus was always the region. It wasn't just focused just on the city.

A: I think Mayor White recognizes that while we are a dominant public sector player in the region, but we don't make up the whole region. The economic base is more than just the City of Houston. In fact, the city is about half the population of the region, or maybe a little bit less than half. So we have a large metropolitan area. If it was an economy on its own, it would be way up there internationally. And so it doesn't make any sense to build a network and stop it at the corporate city lines.

Q: As I understand it, you will issue a final RFP later this month that will close May 9th. What is the city planning contribute as an enticement?

A: All the property that we own plus our rights to the light poles under the electric franchise agreement with CenterPoint would be available as an inducement for someone to make this multi-million dollar investment in the network.

Q: So the city wouldn't own the network?

A: That's right. It would be owned by a private party that would be select through a competitive process not unlike what the non-profit corporation in Philadelphia signed with Earthlink. It would be very similar to that.

Q: Have the public access requirements been fully defined?

A: I've been describing the access to be in three tiers. The first is public service, which is primarily field inspections and infrastructure maintenance for crews that are in mobile units. And we have a tremendous investment in streets -- we had 18,000 lay miles of street in the City of Houston. We've got about 4 to 5 thousand linear miles of drainage ditch and drainage infrastructure. We have a large water sewer utility that has water supply, water transmission, and sewage treatment facilities. So we have crews doing maintenance all over the 600 square miles and they would benefit from having work orders signed in the unit with real time completion on response times. So that is a significant undertaking. The

other public service sector activity that we have is field inspections. Today, building inspectors in Houston don't come to the office. They get up in the morning and they get all their inspections on a mobile device and they can complete their inspection reports and then go home. They now do on average 22 inspections a day.

Q: How does that compare to the old system?

A: It was probably 5 or 6 inspections a day before deploying mobile devices. It is just unbelievable. There are about a hundred and fifty of these inspectors. But we have another 450 inspectors that don't have the technology yet. They are fire inspectors, restaurant inspectors, construction inspectors, environmental quality inspectors. And if we don't get this network up, we are going to be spending a lot of money on commercial connectivity to keep those people in the field like we are doing. So that's the whole public service tier.

Then public access would be the second tier because this will provide the revenues for the network to be built. Our estimates are that with access to this network and the Internet at $15 a month, which is what we are looking at, it would be profitable. The city will have some control of the wholesale rate that will then somewhat determine the retail rate. And with the retail rate at $15, we think it will easily penetrate 10 to 15 percent of the residential and small business market. So it will draw off enough revenue to pay for itself and provide our partner with a return.

Public safety is the third tier. The current condition of the city's fire and police IT environments are such that I don't think we will be ready to let them use the network for two or three years. And the security concerns are there. So I'm thinking that we will do public service and public access first. And then we will come back and do public safety.

Q: In some areas, such as Oklahoma, public safety is actually driving the move toward Wi-Fi network deployment.

A: It is just that Oklahoma City was further along in their public safety upgrades. The Houston Police Department's technology -- its origins are from the 1970s. So we've got some fundamental technology investments to make, primarily in a new records management system to replace a very old home grown application. And then to move them off a mainframe environment to a client server environment. Then there are three or four other critical projects to get done before they will be ready to step up to the new wireless network. Our goal is to have the next generation of technology in police cars to be able to connect to this network and push video and photography out to them, as well as floor plans and maps. So given our situation, it is the logical way to do it.

Q: From things I've heard you say earlier, you view the telcos in the area as potential partners.

A: We want as many proposals as we can get. We've structured the RFP so that it is very open. We haven't spelled out what kind of architecture that we expect. We have some ideas based on what is going on around the country what the architecture will be. But it is going to be a results or performance driven warranty. And we are not going to tell them how to build it or how to design. We are going to work with them to develop a deployment strategy and schedule that will balance the revenue streams from the denser areas while ensuring that low income communities also get deployment in some parity with the deployments that are revenue driven.

Q: So the RFP basically asks for defined results

rather than setting out technical specifications such as bandwidth?

A: Well, we have spelled out some minimum bandwidth requirements for mobile, nomadic and fixed based sites.

Q: Are there requirements that take into account the number of expected people who will be using the network?

A: That's more of a question about the architecture. We anticipate that the networks that will get proposed here will have about 18,000 access sites and about 6,000 gateway nodes that will push the data to about a hundred different building or towers sites. And then from those hundred locations, we will have to pull all that traffic into the Internet and probably have two primary backbone points into a national backbone for redundancy. So how we get the traffic from those hundred towers or buildings into the Internet is going to be an interesting part of the whole process frankly.

Q: This is going to be a huge installation.

A: We have 600 square miles. Some of those areas are not developed, so it won't make sense to put in access there any time soon. But over the next 25 years, the density in Houston will go up dramatically. And we are looking at this as an asset. I see this network as very similar to the water supply that Houston invested in back in the 1950s. The region wouldn't be here if the people back then had not invested in three surface water reservoirs to provide water to the region. This investment is going to involve basically a communications network for Houston that is 21st century. And it is going to be as powerful as the water supply, I think, in terms of attracting people.

Q: So above all else, this is really an economic development move for the region.

A: It is about keeping the region competitive. We want to attract the best and the brightest people and we want to attract capital for investments. And this is one of the infrastructures that we think will be necessary to do that in the 21st century.
Blake Harris Editor