Articles

Phoenix Takes a Cautious Approach to New Wireless Projects

Kristine Sigfridson, Acting CIO, City of Phoenix, talks about that city's perspective and the pilot Wi-Fi programs they have launched despite concerns.

by / July 25, 2006
Kristine Sigfridson, Acting CIO of Phoenix, AZ, talks about that city's concerns and the Wi-Fi pilots they have launched despite reservations.

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DC: Perhaps if you take it from the top and describe in a broad overview Phoenix's approach to wireless, and how it is different from many other municipalities.

Sigfridson: We've looked at the comparison -- I think the common approach we are hearing is sort of the big bang approach -- go with one big massive RFP implementation and solve all your wireless regardless of the audience. What we decided to do is to break down who is using it and who is providing the service into quadrants. So whether it is the government using it, the city itself, or whether it is public use, and whether it is government provided infrastructure or service, and whether it's private. And with those four quadrants, [to] look at each quadrant individually and determine what's the best wireless technology and whether it is an appropriate business or space for us to be playing in.

So you want me to go through a few examples? I didn't say this before, but one of the obvious is where it is the government using it and the government providing the infrastructure. Our police communications is a perfect example. We have an 800 MHz radio system and there is a very compelling reason why we would build the infrastructure and spend $136 million doing it and a lot of money supporting it because it makes sense. We need to know that it will work. Of course, that's a different technology. So when we get past that real compelling reason, when should the government be providing the infrastructure for government use, even though it is not controversial? And really our focus in that area has been untethered access within city facilities for city staff and nomadic users. People come to the different city facilities as city staff. They don't have a workstation to plug into. They should still be able to get to the city's network and assets. So that's one example.

The next one is when the government provides it but the public are the users. This can be controversial. The one space that we know for sure makes sense -- as a legitimate city service makes sense -- is you are in a city facility [and have] free Wi-Fi access for the public. And we are pretty much taking an approach to make that happen in all city facilities where the public comes. So our libraries are already being equipped. Our convention center is being completely redeveloped anyway. It will have free Wi-Fi in it. City Hall -- the public spaces in City Hall. The Sky Harbor Airport of course. And we'll move that into recreation areas and all those kinds of things as they make sense. Essentially, it is very easy. Wi-Fi is a perfect technology for that.

Get into the private sector providing the infrastructure when it's government users -- we are doing that quite extensively and have been for a long time. We have a lot of mobile worker applications using EVDO, having great success with it -- enough success that we don't have a compelling reason to build our own infrastructure when our building inspectors and people like that are having real good success using EVDO. Even some of our public safety users are doing that.

And so the fourth quadrant is the private sector

providing services to the public. And the interesting thing about that space is that if we stay out of it altogether, it's like cell phones. The cell phone providers, they did it and they had the marketing. The idea of the government doing an RFP to bring the private sector in to provide services to the public, that's where we are sort of -- in a private public partnership -- that's where we are really holding back. We don't have a disparate access issue; we have 520 square miles. There are just a whole lot of reasons why we haven't found a reason to move directly in that. And just to add, I think that a lot of justification to move into that space -- a lot of the hype is that you can run your public safety systems on it. You can get more efficiency in government. And it's blurring the fact that the market place maybe isn't ready for that business model yet. And so what's happening is they are bring all these other things in. And for us, we are finding that other technologies and other solutions are better.

DC: And the key aspect, by separating it out, and making the municipal issues and what is a legitimate clear-cut city service and supporting those through wireless and whatever, and the digital divide, it makes it a lot clearer. There is a lot of confusion. People are feeling around for "what's the business model" -- a lot of concern growing because there is no real model that has verified and proven itself to be workable, other than cities saying, "Hey, let's get free Wi-Fi."

Sigfridson: Right. And then you have the vendor hype that comes in and says, "Look, let us use your street poles or whatever it is, and we are going to let you have all your users." And one of the things I think is interesting -- once again, our size makes a big difference. I think in the smaller cities and the more dense cities, it is a completely different thing. And you have to look at that, so I'm not criticizing any of the approaches that they are taking. But for us, 520 square miles -- first of all the infrastructure is huge. But also rolling out a business application -- I mean we've got thousands of public safety vehicles. Equipping them to do this ... One of the business models you hear is that the government itself is the anchor tenant. Do you want to roll out a massive set of business applications where the business model is dependent upon you being the anchor tenant? That is a huge risk you are taking. Why do they need the government to be an anchor tenant? Because they are not sure the business model is going to work? I don't know the answer to that.

DC: I don't know that anyone really knows...

Sigfridson: Right. Do you really want to... because our technology dollars are precious. We don't have a lot of extra technology dollars to experiment. And you don't need to and you can still be very innovative. There is a whole lot; there is way more demand than there are dollars in the city of Phoenix. So we can pick things we know are going to hit the nail on the head and are going to make us more efficient and provide better services to the citizens, whatever those things are. And this one isn't that yet [for us]. It just isn't that yet. So do we what to take those precious dollars and experiment with them? Or do we want to put them where we know darn well we are going to get dramatic value for them?





DC: Plus Phoenix doesn't have a digital inclusion issue.

Sigfridson: Right. And that changes everything. It truly does. We have virtually full coverage and in 50 percent of our neighborhoods, we have two providers of broadband at least. You can get broadband for $30 a month. So for $30 a month, and we are hearing $20 is where they want to get to.

DC: That changes the equation a little bit.

Sigfridson: Dramatically. Plus we are the second most wired city [in the US]. And one of the reasons is that we are not very old and we don't have a whole lot of historical landmarks we have to worry about digging up. I can understand where a Philadelphia would find it incredibly challenging to get fiber throughout dense, small old streets and those kinds of things. And we are not vertical. That makes a big difference too.

DC: So as you move forward, what's your program moving ahead? You've kind out outlined it, but where do you see the priorities?

Sigfridson: We've got a few focuses. Number one is city facilitates. Free Wi-Fi access and untethered access for staff in all city facilities. We also have a pilot project that we are working on with the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. ASU and Maricopa County are also partnering with us. We have an area downtown called Copper Square. It is an economic development area. The Downtown Phoenix Partnership is a non-profit that focuses in that area. We are partnering to look at the concept of putting in a hotspot for economic development purposes. The challenge there is that it is a small area. There are not a lot of residences. We probably are not going to be able to fund it on subscriber fees. There are a lot of other Wi-Fi hotspots in there. So it is going to be a real good experiment or pilot for us to see how can it work for economic development purposes at a destination when there are all kinds of other things and not an obvious market. So that is one of the pilots we are doing. The other pilot we are doing is our last mile pilot with the streets department. And one area we really do consider wireless to be incredibly valuable is remote control of systems. And so the streets department is doing a small pilot for traffic control with video back to the traffic control center as a way of controlling the lights. So we are working with them on a pilot Wi-Fi mesh. It will also, because it is in a downtown area, we are working with some departments. Do we have mobile workers on the street that can make use of that? So that is a very deliberate pilot project as well.

DC: Thank you very much.

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Photo by Blake Harris.
Blake Harris Editor