Tempe, Arizona: First U.S. Citywide Public Access Wi-Fi

The city of Tempe boasts the largest ubiquitous border-to-border high-speed broadband network in North America (40 square miles) that provides Wi-Fi access to residents and the business community as well as to its municipal workforce.

by / December 1, 2006
audio Click here for audio of interview with David Heck, Deputy CIO of Tempe.

The city of Tempe boasts the largest ubiquitous border-to-border high-speed broadband network in North America (40 square miles) that provides Wi-Fi access to residents and the business community as well as to its municipal workforce.

The network, dubbed WAZ Tempe, is the result of an initiative that unofficially began three years ago when Deputy CIO David Heck and others approached Tempe City Council and raised the possibility of providing wireless Internet service in the city's downtown area as a economic development stimulus and a means to give greater access to Arizona State University (ASU) resources.

"We looked at several different models as to how we could bring that into our community," explained Heck. "One was that the city could actually deploy the network, but we felt that was a little cost prohibitive. And as well, the city didn't really want to take on the maintenance and customer service headaches that this would bring."

So instead they decided to leverage the assets the city had -- primarily its street light poles on every street in the city to mount antennas -- to entice a company to deploy and provide Wi-Fi service for a fee to residents that would be in competition with other local cable and DSL broadband providers.

The city first issued a Request for Information, followed with a formal RFP. The result was that the city received several bids and on April 21, 2005 Tempe City Council voted to award a 5-year contract for city-wide wireless broadband services to MobilePro Corporation out of Bethesda, MD. MobilePro partnered with StrixSystems and Pronto Networks to build and support the wireless network.

The company began deployment in September 2005, and opened the network for service in March 2006. Since it's completion, the neighboring cities of Chandler, AZ and Gilbert, AZ have also signed agreements with MobilePro to deploy a wireless network in their communities. Upon completion of these cities, expected in 2007, the WAZ wireless network will have a 187 square mile footprint.

A StrixSystems access point mounted on a street light pole.

Win-Win Contract Terms
In securing the deal, Tempe brought to the table not only free use of the city street light infrastructure, but also their existing fiber backhaul locations for Mobile Pro to deploy its network. In return, the city negotiated a number of free benefits to serve citizens better.

"One of these was that we would have about a 2 square mile zone in our downtown area where people would have free unlimited access for two hours," explained Heck. "And then after that 2 hour period, if someone wants to continue, they can pay by the hour. We also asked that and ASU domains and all sub-domains below them would be free access from anywhere in the network. So citizens wouldn't have to subscribe to get services from or"

Free access to city web sites was seen as the catalyst to jump-start e-government for Tempe as well as a way to streamline city services.

Additionally, the agreement with MobilePro allowed for the creation of a municipal network deployed on the same infrastructure as the public network. This second, "virtual" network was to be used by municipal workers -- police, fire, water, traffic and development services personnel -- to enhance their ability to provide services in the community. So every police officer, patrol car

and fire truck on the street equipped with a laptop computer that is Wi-Fi enabled would have access to information that has never before been available in the field due to limited bandwidth.

"We are using the Wi-Fi network in our police cars to access email and upload and download reports, for example," explained Heck. "Basically, it is an extension of our local network here, so anything they can do, any applications they can run when they are in the building, the can now do in the field.

"This really opens up a lot of things for a municipal employee in terms of not having to come back to the office to get at resources. So we have code enforcement workers and we have water and utility workers and our traffic engineers who are out in the field who can now access their resources. And we use a VPN so we basically tunnel into our internal network for security reasons. But once they are in, they have access to all the resources they would have from their office."

David Heck in the field tests Wi-Fi reception.

Optimization and Pilots
The basic network work was up by the end of March, according to Heck. However, from March until August, MobilePro actually doubled the number of access points in the city due to coverage issues. "Because this was one of the first networks deployed of this size, the company under-estimated the number of access points they would need," Heck said. "We found in the beginning there were just too many gaps in the network and so we elected to wait until they were finished optimizing it before we started using it for municipal purposes. We didn't really even start piloting the network until about September this year. So we haven't been at this very long. We are in that phase right now and we are starting to get some feedback. And the folks that are using it out there are very pleased with it."

So far, the municipality has simply extended access to existing applications into the field. However, while they only current have static video from a couple of cameras, they do have one fire vehicle with a camera mounted on a mast. "We have used that to roll up on scene. They pull up the mast and the captains and chiefs can view the video from their desk in their offices or in their emergency operations center," Heck explained.

The municipal network negotiated in the lease agreement with MobilePro is also to provide a future backbone for communication devices that utilize frequencies set aside by the Office of Homeland Security (4.9 GHz), providing a migration path for dedicated public safety communication.

So the city has an eye on possibly deploying other public safety applications in the future. But as it exists now, the network is robust enough to allow access to multiple Internet service providers should this prove desirable in the future as well as to support telephone service via Voice-over-IP.
Blake Harris Editor