Cities Use WiMAX to Create Municipal Wireless Networks

WiMAX gains momentum as replacement for Wi-Fi to provide wireless Internet access.

by / January 17, 2008

Over the past several years, hundreds of U.S. cities launched municipal wireless initiatives, as widespread wireless Internet access became the latest must-have for local officials bent on keeping their communities economically competitive. But that activity cooled significantly in the latter half of 2007.

The chill stems from several factors. The implosion of the "free" business model that attracted wide interest in municipal Wi-Fi has left many cities unsure of how to pursue wireless Internet access on a community-wide scale. Furthermore, shortcomings with the wireless technologies used to deliver municipal networks created other unforeseen challenges.

The business-model problems are well documented. Many projects called for commercial network providers to foot the bill for citywide Wi-Fi networks in exchange for mounting wireless antennas on public light poles and other assets. Closing the digital divide was a driver for many of these undertakings, which pinned hopes of network use on the public's appetite for low-cost wireless Internet. For the most part, the networks struggled to attract enough subscribers to make them profitable.

These difficulties were on clear display in 2007 as EarthLink - a major player in the municipal wireless market - cut nearly half its work force after losing millions of dollars on the initiatives. EarthLink CEO Rolla Huff announced the company would back away from further municipal wireless projects until it found a viable business model.

On the technology side, municipal wireless initiatives often ran into higher-than-expected equipment costs, as the task of blanketing large urban areas with Wi-Fi coverage proved harder than anticipated. Cities and their private partners found that hundreds - if not thousands - of Wi-Fi access points were needed to provide adequate coverage.

Where does that leave cities, many of which still want municipal wireless networks?

Cities and commercial wireless providers will hash out better business models. But the lull in new development could offer local governments time to evaluate alternative technologies for simplifying the process of delivering widespread wireless coverage.

A Better Way?
WiMAX, which can produce a wireless cloud connectivity to an entire city using just a few base stations, is emerging as a viable alternative. WiMAX networks require access points roughly every two square miles for urban areas, and one every six square miles for rural areas. By contrast, Wi-Fi networks require anywhere from 24 to 40 access points per square mile for urban areas, said to Riz Khaliq, IBM global business executive for government. Depending on terrain, cities often need a few extra WiMAX antennas attached to buildings to complete the cloud. But that is simpler than installing hundreds of tiny Wi-Fi nodes all over town.

Depending on user proximity, WiMAX can offer stronger signals and faster service than Wi-Fi, but few local governments have implemented it. One reason is computer hardware with embedded WiMAX capabilities largely has not yet reached the market. By comparison, virtually all laptops and other mobile devices feature Wi-Fi capability.

But Wi-Fi's lock on hardware compatibility may end within the next few years: Intel has committed to release a plethora of mobile devices with embedded WiMAX compatibilities by 2008. Sprint continues its commitment to spread WiMAX networks across the United States despite its failed attempt to do so in partnership with Internet service provider Clearwire. Nokia and Cisco have also signaled strong interest in WiMAX through their investments, Khaliq said.

"Cisco's recent purchase of Navini, [a WiMAX equipment provider], is a big example of where WiMAX is becoming, essentially, industry standard," he said. "In the longer term, that's going to commoditize the network, which is going to improve the value and the reasons for these governments to make sure their government has the cloud over their station." 

Some assert that local governments should stick to Wi-Fi because their hardware infrastructures are already Wi-Fi compliant. Many

cities and counties can't afford to replace all of their hardware at once or retrofit it with WiMAX conversion cards to use the network, said Craig Settles, an Oakland, Calif.-based analyst specializing in municipal wireless.

"The near-universal availability of Wi-Fi means these cards are already built into end-user devices with no extra costs, as opposed to adding $150 cards for each user," Settles said. "If you have several hundred or a couple thousand people, this isn't cheap. And if departments buy these cards on their own, there's no guarantee of uniformity, which means higher device management costs. What's more, WiMAX cards may not be compatible with hardware cities already have, so either you don't equip everyone, or you buy new computing devices."

Others suggest a combination of Wi-Fi and WiMAX, in which WiMAX functions as a backhaul. In that scenario, a government would produce WiMAX signals, but install Wi-Fi nodes at the end of them. This way, as WiMAX-compliant hardware becomes available, end-users can switch to a straight WiMAX connection when they desire. The hybrid model also offers a Wi-Fi network future redundancy. In the event a given Wi-Fi access point failed, the user could quickly switch to a WiMAX connection.

Settles supports the WiMAX backhaul option. "WiMAX has backhaul value - usefulness where there is fairly flat terrain and a great option when you don't have light poles or have homes that are spaced hundreds of yards from each other," he said.      

As local governments go back to the drawing board for municipal wireless plans, a look at the status of WiMAX may show the nationwide municipal Wi-Fi setback to be a gift in disguise. Once a government builds a technological infrastructure, it is typically stuck with it for several years past its prime. Before governments continue marching toward municipal Wi-Fi, could a shift toward WiMAX keep local governments moving in a cutting-edge direction?

The Long View in Brownsville
Brownsville, Texas, plans to have its citywide WiMAX network fully functional by January 2008. The city opted for WiMAX, not wanting to deploy and maintain hundreds of Wi-Fi access points, according to Gail Bruciak, management information systems director of Brownsville. The city will spend roughly $2 million for the network.

"At the very beginning, we started looking at Wi-Fi mesh networks, talked to different entities and it became a question of how many units we wanted to maintain," Bruciak said. "Did we want to maintain 1,000 or 2,000? We didn't want to shoot ourselves in the foot. Who was going to manage all those access points?"

She said the city wasn't interested in saddling its IT work force with that sort of maintenance demand. Three base stations will blanket Brownsville's flat terrain with WiMAX coverage. Rather than waiting for WiMAX-embedded products to hit the market, Brownsville is retrofitting its mobile devices with WiMAX antennas and conversion cards as part of the project's start-up costs. The city will purchase 100 PCMCIA antenna units for $250 each and 150 CPE WiMAX conversion cards at $195 each.

The city's MIS leadership believes that WiMAX is the future of municipal wireless networks. "We are all sitting here waiting for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to get themselves together and come up with the standards that everybody's going to use," Bruciak said. "However, I think everybody's headed toward WiMAX."

Some WiMAX critics point to the technology's higher cost, noting that most Wi-Fi equipment is sold at major commercial electronics stores. Bruciak rejects the lure of Wi-Fi's cheaper hardware.

"I've had some people say, 'Well, you can go get Wi-Fi equipment at Best Buy or Circuit City.' We're not building a toy here. This is not for home use. This is a government," Bruciak said. "It needs to be secure. It needs to be consistent. It

needs to be up 365 days a year and can't be down if you've got public safety on it. It's not as simplistic as people would like it to be."

WiMAX proponents contend the technology can save governments more money in the long term because they won't pay IT staff to maintain countless Wi-Fi nodes across town. As for the deployment, Bruciak said it has gone relatively smoothly. Land-use regulations and weather were the only obstacles the project faced.

Once the network is fully functional, Brownsville will deploy mobile applications for government workers in the field. Among the planned deployments are new tools for building and health code inspectors. New World Systems will provide the mobile applications using a .NET platform, allowing end-users to work in the familiar Microsoft Windows environment. These applications will interface with the city's GIS and financial systems. Users will access the application via a Citrix front-end.

The network also will provide broadband connectivity to workstations at firehouses, police stations and other government buildings.

Another Early Adopter 
Manchester, Conn., deployed Wi-Fi at one of its heavily frequented sections in 2002, but bypassed the citywide municipal Wi-Fi option in favor of WiMAX.

Project leaders wanted to avoid installing a Wi-Fi access point for roughly every 150 feet of range, which a citywide Wi-Fi network would have required.

"You need an awful lot of Wi-Fi nodes to cover a city that's 6 miles by 6 miles," said Jack McCoy, CIO of Manchester. "We tracked other technologies, and the WiMAX technology, as it was specified from the IEEE, seemed like it had more promise."

Manchester had an unpleasant experience with WiMAX in 2002 when it tried to use it to connect wireless Web surveillance cameras in a large city parking lot. The city could only find one vendor with a relevant WiMAX product that complied with both 802.11 and 802.16 wireless standards.

"We had six respondents," McCoy said. "Three were not compliant and didn't even pretend to be. One was questionable, two had claims of compliance, but when you actually looked at it at the time, there was only really one that was compliant with the WiMAX standard."

Manchester hired the vendor and invested in a limited "point-to-point" WiMAX infrastructure for the parking lot. Technical obstacles plagued the process. "The vendor was just simply too new in the game at the time to keep it working at the production level we needed," McCoy said.

Manchester couldn't afford to pay the vendor to maintain the application, forcing that job into the hands of the city's IT staff. This made technical obstacles even more difficult to solve. The city did get the system to run video back and forth, but the video quality didn't satisfy end-users. The solution stopped running altogether when the vendor issued an update patch.

"It would be like having your Microsoft Windows operating system stop after the first security patch, and then not being able to get it going again," McCoy said.

The city removed the network and hired another vendor to use its own proprietary wireless equipment to run the cameras, which continue functioning and have aided several law enforcement efforts, according to McCoy.

With more products and market experience in WiMAX now available, Manchester is ready to attempt another WiMAX project. McCoy is especially interested in WiMAX because Manchester already has a fiber-optic network connecting all government buildings. This means the city has a ready-made infrastructure for deploying citywide WiMAX antennas. Those antennas could pass WiMAX signals back and forth to the antennas on other government buildings, completing the connectivity cloud. WiMAX signals reaching those antennas could also provide broadband to the government workers in the buildings themselves, via the fiber connected to the antennas.

Manchester's first step is to connect a retired firehouse to WiMAX using the fiber antenna at a nearby school. The firehouse functions as a technology resource center for citizens. The WiMAX equipment will perform a simple point-to-point function to connect equipment at the firehouse to broadband. Only people in the vicinity of the firehouse will have WiMAX access.

"We haven't bid it yet, but we have the funding and the elected officials who have given us the 'go' on it," McCoy said. "This time I think we're going to try to find two vendors - one on one side of the link, and the other on the other side of the link. They need to be vendors who can interoperate compatibly over the 802.11 and 802.16 standards. That will be another test, and hopefully that will remain in production."

If the small, $20,400 project is successful, McCoy hopes to expand the network citywide. Various mobile applications for keeping field workers out of offices and on the move would follow.

Lesson Learned
Any government wanting to operate WiMAX in only parts of its geography must make sure the network interoperates with existing communications systems on other radio frequencies, which Fresno, Calif., learned the hard way.

The city had roughly $750,000 to spend, so it attempted to build a WiMAX cloud to cover an area that 65 percent of vehicle traffic traveled. Project leaders implemented the network to enable police cars exclusively to connect and download necessary data every time they drove through the cloud. They would lose connectivity when they left the cloud and regain connectivity when they re-entered it.

Problems arose when the WiMAX network, which operated on the 900 MHz spectrum, interfered with the city's 800 MHz police radios. The arrangement worked fine when officers were in the WiMAX cloud, allowing them to exchange data and video via the 900 MHz network and to maintain voice communications via the 800 MHz system. But when officers left the cloud, they lost both WiMAX and 800 MHz radio connectivity.

"The WiMAX dependency prevented the cars from switching back over to the slow [800 MHz] speed link to maintain contact with our dispatch system," said Conrad Nerdahl, management information systems manager for the Fresno Police Department. "These officers told us, 'You know, when we're in the zone, it's working great. When we get out of the zone, we're flying blind.'"

Nerdahl added that the WiMAX network functioned properly as a backhaul connecting all of the fiber-ready towers in Fresno to one another. However, that wasn't very useful to the 800 MHz applications outside of that network that couldn't function as a result. This is one area where Wi-Fi appears to beat WiMAX. Wi-Fi networks can coexist with other communications systems on other radio signals, allowing police to download data at strategically placed hotspots.    

Fresno's only option was to expand the WiMAX network citywide and run all communications applications over it, eliminating use of the 800 MHz spectrum. Nerdahl said that would have transformed the WiMAX network into at least a $2.5 million project. Fresno didn't have the money, so the WiMAX network sits unused for now.

"We only had $750,000 to fill up the project," Nerdahl said. "We pretty much chewed up all that money in the hardware costs." 

Nerdahl still wants to eventually build a WiMAX network for transmitting data to officers as well as voice content. The city owning its own WiMAX network would also offer it a better chance at redundancy during an emergency, he said.

"What happens if the phone company all of a sudden decides to turn its systems off? We'd need to provide our own connectivity," Nerdahl said. "We've looked at the existing WiMAX project we have in place, and that's why we have not totally abandoned it yet. While we move forward with the cellular option to at least keep us moving forward, we're looking at WiMAX as a disaster backup system."

He said he hopes to collect enough grant money to make WiMAX a reality in Fresno.

Follow the Leader
WiMAX deployment activity remains modest in the United States, but momentum is building. Local governments typically like to play "follow the leader," which means results in Brownsville and Manchester will be critical. If they're successful, a government stampede in the WiMAX direction could easily follow due to the simple deployment and maintenance of WiMAX.         

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.