Toward a Wireless World

A look at wireless trends and innovations in local governments by the staff of Government Technology magazine in association with the Center for Digital Government.

by / February 23, 2007
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Every year, the Center for Digital Government conducts the Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys. The 2006 surveys polled more than 300 local governments about everything from organizational arrangements to infrastructure to services.

The surveys show that local governments deploy wireless networks to solve a number of challenges -- often simultaneously -- including economic development, digital inclusion, increasing government efficiency and improving constituent services.

The dominant technology currently in use is Wi-Fi/mesh. But for some jurisdictions, broadband cellular cards have proven more advantageous for mobile staff. Though microwave access appears somewhat common for nonpublic government networks, such as mobile police networks and fixed WANs used by government staff, at least one WiMAX-standard deployment for public access has cropped up in Manchester, Conn., where the city is deploying a small test network for webcam video surveillance, and the city plans to cover the entire city in the future.

Broadband Plan
Broadband deployment strategies are diverse. The majority of local governments are relying to some degree on private providers for community wireless broadband deployments, with less than 10 percent of jurisdictions using a public utility or government-owned network model.

Regional collaboration has also come to light in a few places, often with a county and the cities within it collaboratively developing a broadband strategy. In one of the largest regional collaborative initiatives, 10 cities in the Denver metro area banded together, forming a consortium, known as Colorado Wireless Communities (CWC), to attract a private-sector partner to cover approximately 200 square miles area with wireless access.

There is much to be learned from the aggregated data collected by the Center for Digital Government's local government surveys, and plenty of inspiration to be found in the innovative projects brought to light. The following pages highlight emerging wireless trends in government as well as some of the innovations reported in 2006. -- Emily Montandon, Special Projects Editor

The Multiplier EffectM
By Shane Peterson, Associate Editor, Government Technology

Communities of the 21st century take a different approach to economic development than communities of the past. In today's globalized world, telecommunications infrastructure is key to successfully stimulating a community's economic environment. As a result, today's leaders have actively invested in network infrastructure, such as fiber optics or citywide Wi-Fi, to create the backbone necessary for 21st-century commerce.

In 2002, Tallahassee, Fla., leaders authorized spending for a "Digital Canopy" project that provides free wireless access to the Internet for the city's airport and a large downtown area. City officials said the Digital Canopy is a crucial component to projecting the tech-friendly environment that IT companies look for in a community when considering relocating offices or opening up new ones.

Colorado cities too recognize the economic development benefits of telecommunications infrastructure. Boulder, Colo., IT staff began an initiative in April 2006 to evaluate the feasibility of a communitywide wireless broadband network to, in part, stimulate economic development.

Nine other cities in the Denver metropolitan area partnered with Boulder, creating the Colorado Wireless Communities (CWC). The CWC planned to release an RFP in January 2007 for private-sector investment in wireless Internet connectivity that would blanket approximately 200 square miles and serve about 630,000 people in those 10 communities.

Economic development isn't just about bringing new companies to a community. Revitalizing an existing neighborhood can create grass-roots growth in a community's economy. The Hollywood, Fla., Community Redevelopment Agency sponsored a similar project that offers free Wi-Fi Internet access in the city's downtown and beachfront areas for residents

and tourists.

Looking Forward
Some economic development efforts look to the long haul. These efforts often take the form of "digital inclusion" programs, which use information technologies to foster education and improve a community's quality of life.

City leaders in Riverside, Calif., created SmartRiverside to attract and retain hightech companies. The initiative aims to increase the city's technology literacy through digital inclusion and build a smarter community through free citywide wireless Internet access. SmartRiverside also endeavors to identify new programs that encourage technology innovation and use in Riverside, and attract high-tech companies to the city's Technology Park.

The city's mayor serves as chairman of SmartRiverside, and the city's CIO serves as the nonprofit's executive director. City officials use incentive programs, such as tenant-improvement assistance for as much as $30,000, and employee-relocation programs for as much as $5,000 per employee, to attract high-tech firms to the city.

Such efforts aren't limited to cities. Counties too realize that the cities within their boundaries depend, in part, on county government's willingness to institute economic development programs. Oakland County, Mich., is behind the Wireless Oakland initiative -- a planned wireless cloud that will provide Internet access to a 950-square-mile area. The county is also developing a Telecommunication and Technology Planning Toolkit for Local Governments to help those governments plan for the future and devise their own programs to stimulate economic development efforts.

Similarly Richland County, S.C., participates in community development conferences on broadband access, both wired and wireless, with leaders from economic development agencies, local government, education, business, public housing, community development corporations and technology companies. The goal is to spur, support and sustain economic development in low-income neighborhoods.

Building Bridges
By Jessica Jones, Editor, Emergency Management

Still important in the public sector is digital inclusion -- or bridging the digital divide. Many counties nationwide are working toward access for all citizens -- urban and rural, wealthy and poor -- and pursue these goals in diverse ways. Key trends include publicprivate partnerships, providing Internet access at libraries and other public facilities, and offering these services at low or no cost.

Reaching Rural Locales
Some rural localities have partnered with the private sector to bring wireless mesh broadband to previously unreachable areas. In 2005, Franklin County, Va., conducted a Broadband Assessment Study to document the current state of service nationwide. After issuing an RFP and partnering with a vendor, work to link outlying local government offices and provide broadband to rural areas of the county is well under way.

Another county partnering with the private sector -- as well as other local units of government -- to expand broadband in the region is Kent County, Mich., which is currently pursuing a Wi-Fi-based approach, since the wired approach is economically impractical.

In both Franklin and Kent counties, extending wireless broadband to rural areas will also help improve public safety by increasing flexibility and information capabilities.

Public Access
Many communities offer broadband access in public facilities. In Palm Beach County, Fla., Wi-Fi access is available to the public in the airport, the library and county courthouses.

Palm Beach County fully funded its wireless initiative and is in the early stages of planning a broader deployment of public Wi-Fi that will create hotspots in the downtown areas of several municipalities.

In Roanoke County, Va., private ISPs deliver wired and wireless access to citizens through subscriptions. Without competing with these vendors, the county hopes to enhance the lives of citizens who live in areas where broadband is unavailable. With tax dollars, the county built limited wireless broadband access

in many county administrative buildings, and usage is free to visitors. The county library system also offers publicly funded broadband access at all its annexes.

Universities, convention centers and public schools are also common sites for public Wi-Fi networks.

Forsyth County, N.C., is working through WinstonNet, a nonprofit initiative established in 2001 to bring broadband access to underserved communities in the county. The organization -- whose members include the city of Winston-Salem, Forsyth County, and local schools, libraries and other organizations -- is working to bridge the digital divide by providing computer labs throughout the county in churches, libraries, parks and other public locations. The group is now planning a communitywide wireless initiative that would provide free wireless in all computer labs, and free or low-cost service in Winston-Salem. WinstonNet is also establishing a mechanism to provide equipment for low- to middle-income households.

Low-Cost Wireless
Many counties and municipalities are working with wireless providers to deploy lowcost broadband access.

In Philadelphia, Wireless Philadelphia worked with a private ISP to launch a citywide Wi-Fi network. Low-income residents can obtain broadband access by visiting several free hotspots throughout the city or by subscribing for a reduced rate.

Montgomery County, Md., initiated a program that provides free Wi-Fi to the general public. The Silver Spring Wireless Fidelity project provides wireless access in open-air public spaces in downtown Silver Spring, Md.

Also working to provide free wireless Internet access is Oakland County, Mich., whose Wireless Oakland initiative will provide free high-speed Internet access to every county resident, business and visitor. The project will be accomplished through a unique publicprivate partnership, leveraging technology investments already funded by Oakland County residents to create a blend of free and for-fee services. The initiative also aims to provide computing devices and technical training to residents who normally would not have access to the technology.

Enhancing Efficiency
By Chad Vander Veen, Technology and Politics Editor, Government Technology

Government efficiency is on the rise as more municipalities adopt wireless technologies and mobile applications. This increased efficiency is being realized in such areas as field inspections, law enforcement, internal communications, disaster recovery and security.

For example, one-third of counties responding to the Center for Digital Government's 2006 Digital Counties Survey said wireless broadband is available in certain public facilities, such as government offices, schools, airports and libraries, though wireless broadband connectivity isn't as prevalent as traditional broadband.

These broadband strategies enhance efficiency in various ways. Typical examples include connecting field employees to the office, improving law enforcement communications and enhancing first response. Mobile applications, such as meter reading, permitting and inspections, are changing the fundamental nature of government business by decreasing paperwork, reducing costs and improving service delivery -- all of which come under the umbrella of improving government efficiency.

Field Operations Streamlined
Field inspections have been significantly enhanced as many counties adopt cellular broadband capabilities. For example, Loudon County, Va., has an e-permitting project under way that is helping to transform both internal and external operations. Contractors, builders and other customers are witnessing their wait times for permits slashed from days to minutes as wireless connectivity allows for on-site permitting. Inspectors are no longer tethered to the office as jurisdictions embracing a wireless strategy realize the potential of mobile telecommuting. Furthermore, worker productivity increases have cut the need for hiring additional staff.

Public safety is experiencing a revolution as wireless and other technologies change the way police officers, firefighters and other first

responders do their jobs. Yakima County, Wash., for example, claims to have the nation's largest 802.x wireless public safety network, covering approximately 700 square miles with high-speed data access that is available to law enforcement agencies. Additionally this wireless network is being adapted to serve multiple purposes such as courthouses, county offices and libraries.

There are a number of other wireless broadband applications for public safety being deployed. Wi-Fi hotspots at police and fire stations, for example, allow for the rapid exchange of mission-critical information. Mobile computers in patrol cars let officers perform tasks such as querying the National Crime Information Center and filing paperless police reports. GIS tools also help first responders locate and navigate to emergency scenes.

Testing Positive
Results from the survey are encouraging. Many responding law enforcement agencies don't rely exclusively on traditional communications technology, such as two-way radios. In fact, nearly 60 percent of respondents said local law enforcement is connected to a digital communications network that affords them access to license plate data, drivers' licenses, mug shots and criminal histories. In addition, those same respondents are fully integrated with federal and state criminal databases, local courts and corrections facilities.

A majority of respondents have also deployed citizen-facing Web sites for those seeking information regarding convicted sex offenders' whereabouts.

Another strategy for effecting change are city and county approaches that link outlying facilities and employees. Clay County, Iowa, for example, worked with a private ISP to deploy a wireless network to connect distant county offices.

Survey respondents who are actively working to strengthen their overall IT infrastructure make possible these gains in efficiency. According to the survey, a majority of responding counties said they have taken an enterprise approach to their technology infrastructure, with many or all operating departments and agencies using a common network computing infrastructure.

Crossing the Line
By Chad Vander Veen, Technology and Politics Editor, Government Technology

Constituent service is, or at least should be, the core reason for government's existence. Findings from the Center for Digital Government's 2006 Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys indicate that communities nationwide are implementing technology strategies to enhance the citizen-government relationship. The aging yet relevant axiom of "online, not in line" continues to drive the efforts of governments large and small. Today there are more online applications available to citizens than ever before, meaning the ability for people to conduct their business with government is becoming more efficient.

Giving citizens the opportunity to complete online transactions that in the past required them to visit one or more government offices is the most common and most compelling way to apply technology to constituent service. As the survey details, cities and counties offer an increasingly diverse suite of electronic services. Most provide commonly used forms online -- with a growing number of jurisdictions allowing users to submit those forms electronically as well.

Survey Says
For example, 73 percent of survey respondents have property assessment and tax forms available online, with 56 percent reporting such forms can be submitted electronically. Forms for jury duty and other court services are available online in 38 percent of responding counties, with 33 percent affording citizens the ability to submit forms electronically. Almost half of responding counties offer county records searches online, approximately one-third of respondents allow citizens to submit forms for building permits and recreation services, while fewer than a quarter accept online submissions for child support and services or occupational license renewal.

These numbers indicate local governments are stepping up in terms of service delivery. Yet it is also clear there's still a long way to go. Returning to the occupational license renewal example, only 12 percent of responding cities say their citizens can complete and submit forms online. Online license renewal could therefore be

considered one of the key services cities and counties might choose to focus on in their drive to improve constituent service.

There are a number of excellent examples of the efforts of cities and counties committed to enhancing their ability to deliver the kind of quality, in-demand service their citizens want. Tucson, Ariz., is one such example. The city designated its business licensing for a significant upgrade. After the upgrade is implemented, most tax and license transactions will be available online to city residents. In Contra Costa County, Calif., an online application for accessing and paying taxes is being implemented in conjunction with an interactive voice response system that will provide telephone access and payment services for those citizens unable or unwilling to use the online application.

Practical Application
Effectively improving constituent service is more than providing online transaction, permit and payment applications. CRM and 311 systems have also emerged as technologies vital to the local government strategy. In a related question, the survey asked counties whether there is a single online citizen service area where constituents could request services, report problems or lodge complaints, and complete citizen satisfaction surveys. The results were mixed. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they had a citizen service area on the county Web site. Ten percent of county respondents also reported having a database consolidated between the Web application and a telephone call center. Fortyfive percent, however, do not have an online citizen service area -- meaning ample room for improvement exists.

Looking at Chicago, one will find some innovative applications for CRM and 311 systems. Chicago is using CRM, 311 and GIS technologies to provide mobile "onestop shopping" for families in need of social services. The system is available during emergencies -- such as Chicago's handling of Katrina evacuees -- as well as nonemergency events and ongoing service delivery. The onestop combination of relevant services from multiple levels of government can be customized to meet individual citizen needs. Many cities and counties across the nation continue to adopt CRM and 311 strategies. Many are also deploying innovative services like citywide Wi-Fi, public GIS applications and all sorts of online permitting applications. In terms of constituent service, the survey shows that much has been accomplished, and yet much remains to be done.

Digital Pioneers
by Steve Towns, Editor, Government Technology

Local governments are experimenting with a broad range of wired and wireless services aimed at streamlining government operations and improving the quality of life for community residents.

An examination of the 2006 Digital Cities and Digital Counties survey results shows that local governments are using innovative technology to enhance city libraries and parks, boost public transit use, deter crime, and even compete for scarce employees.

Smart Libraries
Public libraries often are an early target for municipal wireless initiatives. These are among the first facilities to receive wireless network infrastructure, usually in an effort to improve citizen satisfaction, enhance education and serve residents who lack home Internet access.

Communities also have done a significant amount of work in making transactions, such as renewing library cards, available online. Approximately 40 percent of counties responding to the 2006 Digital Counties Survey provided such services via the Web. Now some forward-looking library systems are using wireless technology to boost citizen convenience and reduce library staffing requirements. Carlsbad, Calif., and Lewisville, Texas, are among several communities using RFID technology to automate and simplify the process of checking out books, CDs, videos and other library materials. Advances such as this contribute to the Carlsbad library's consistently high ranking in the city's annual citizen satisfaction survey. More than 97 percent of Carlsbad residents ranked library services as good or excellent in the 2006 citizen survey.

Enhanced Recreation
Communities also are experimenting with wireless applications to boost

the popularity and usability of parks and recreational facilities.

In summer 2006, New York City announced that free Wi-Fi networks would be installed in 10 major city parks, including Central Park, Union Square Park and Corona Flushing Meadows. The project is a partnership between the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, New York-based WiFi Salon and Nokia.

Mecklenburg County, N.C., installed its own wireless network in Freedom Park more than a year ago, using seven wireless access points to blanket the 98-acre facility with free Wi-Fi service. The county intends to add wireless access to other parks and greenways in the future.

Meanwhile, Lincoln, Neb., plans to add RFID tags to public swimming pool passes sold by the city Parks and Recreation Department for the summer 2007 swimming season. The city expects RFID to reduce fraud by making it harder for people to share pool passes. RFID-equipped passes also could incorporate medical alert information and emergency contacts for pool patrons.

Furthermore, the technology will let the city track when visitors enter and leave pool facilities, a boon to parents trying to keep tabs on their kids during the summer.

Public Transit
A growing number of communities are developing technological amenities designed to attract more riders to public transportation systems. These applications are aimed at making waiting for a bus more tolerable and improving the rider experience once citizens are aboard.

Lafayette, La., plans to use GPS technology to perform real-time tracking of its transit bus fleet. The system will deliver the information to bus terminal displays and Web-enabled handheld devices, giving riders up-to-the-minute data on arrival times. Bus terminals will display a large projection of a map showing designated bus routes. Buses will appear as unique icons along these routes, providing a spatial view of their current locations. Tracking information will be updated twice per minute. Any rider with an Internet-capable device will be able to link to the transit bus Web site, and view the same location and status information provided in the terminals.

Besides improving rider satisfaction, Lafayette expects tracking technology to improve management of the bus system.

The new technology will automatically collect timeliness and performance data. It also will warn dispatchers if a bus leaves its designated route and alert the appropriate responders if an onboard emergency alarm is sounded.

Tempe, Ariz., will offer Wi-Fi service at city bus stops, giving riders something to do while they wait.

And Colorado Springs, Colo., has equipped some of its transit buses with free wireless service since late 2004. Colorado Springs officials say it costs about $50 to equip a bus with wireless connectivity, using a broadband cellular connection that's linked to a wireless router in the vehicle. The low-cost technology has proven popular with bus riders. Offering free wireless service on the 75-minute commute between Colorado Springs and Denver helped boost sales of monthly bus passes by more than 82 percent, according to the city.

Safer Communities
Of course, public safety agencies are long-standing users of wireless technologies. But communities still are finding opportunities for innovations that improve the health and safety of residents.

Virginia's Roanoke County equipped its fire and rescue stations with wireless broad band access points that work in conjunction with local hospitals to quickly transfer secure patient data to health-care professionals. Similarly Richardson, Texas, expects its citywide Wi-Fi project to greatly benefit emergency response.

The city Fire Department hopes to provide real-time video from the back of an ambulance to a doctor waiting at the hospital. And the Richardson Police Department expects wireless broadband to complement its shift from analog to digital video for in-vehicle cameras. Officials say the increased bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi may allow dispatchers to view live digital video from in-car cameras,

improving both communications and officer safety. Other communities will use wireless video to extend the reach of law enforcement agencies even further.

Roanoke, Va., is working with Nortel to build a wireless mesh network along its downtown corridor that will support digital video cameras at heavy traffic intersections. Data will be fed to the city's police, fire and traffic engineering departments. And two Florida cities -- Delray Beach and West Palm Beach -- said they're contemplating the use of wireless surveillance cameras to tame high-crime areas. West Palm Beach officials said the technology could deter criminal activity and aid in prosecuting individuals caught breaking the law. The city already has selected appropriate camera locations and expects to begin deployment in early 2007.

Automated Recruitment
Although not a wireless service, several local governments say they're using Web technology to streamline the recruiting and hiring of new employees. Widespread availability and popularity of commercial employment Web sites have prompted local governments to move a growing number of public employment resources online.

For instance, it's now fairly routine to find job openings posted on city and county Web sites. But some jurisdictions are going several steps further.

Vacaville, Calif., intends to implement an applicant tracking system that will let job seekers apply for city jobs online, then track their applications electronically throughout the hiring process.

Business rules will be built into the process, and tasks such as prescreening and progress monitoring will be automated, allowing the city to handle job applications more effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, job seekers will get a quicker response and better information about the status of their applications. Beyond the fact that it will streamline internal operations, Vacaville views the new system -- expected to be deployed within the next several years -- as a competitive edge for recruiting talented workers.

Tip of the Iceberg
Given the fact that municipal-scale wireless infrastructure development remains in its infancy, the deployment of innovative mobile services is poised to grow dramatically in the coming years. Much like the public sector's first foray into "e-government" a decade ago with the emergence of Web-based services and information, it'll likely take a while to arrive at definite uses for the emerging wireless channel.

In the meantime, these forward-thinking jurisdictions are helping pioneer the evolution of digital communities.