technology going back to 2000-2001.


One benefit of Wi-Fi technology is that it had applications other than just reading meters. When we looked seriously at Wi-Fi, we recognized the power of the technology. Meter reading was the tip of the iceberg.


TT: You've been instrumental in pushing the Wi-Fi project - why is that important for the city, both for improving city operations and the broader aspect of giving citizens access to wireless Internet?


SN: We started out by saying, "how can we use this technology to be better as a city service provider?" We invited the top several hundred managers across our organization to educate them on Wi-Fi and to brainstorm potential uses. We asked them, "If you could use this technology today, what would you do?" A lot of the answers were low-hanging fruit: the ability to take things that were already Web based that could be easily accessed from the field to improve response time.


Then we started talking about how this relates to our other governmental partners. All of us here in local government are fish in the same pond. If we can figure out ways to work together and improve one another using that same expenditure of a dollar, then it's all the better. So we talked about how the school district could benefit from what we're doing in terms of classroom technology and connectivity for students after school. We talked about how our local transit authority could use Wi-Fi for its own system and also to provide Internet in the bus.


Even with all of that, we recognized that there was more capacity than we could utilize and there was a benefit all the way down to the individual customer. I've always described this as a great leveler. For example, big companies can afford high-tech, real-time tools that transmit work orders electronically or track when packages are picked up and delivered. Now with Wi-Fi, local companies can do the same thing using simple, inexpensive handheld devices. There's a real opportunity for local businesses to progress radically with a very modest investment in technology.


We recognized there would be power in taking that back to the community. That's where we continue to look for partnerships. We don't view ourselves as the provider of that service. It's not something in our normal skill sets. We are talking to EarthLink to be that private-sector interface between our system and the individual customer who is looking for traditional ISP [Internet service provider] service or something more sophisticated like voice over IP.


TT: Do citizens currently get free access?


SN: Yes. We decided early on that we would allow citizens to get on the network - without promoting it or encouraging people to use it - while we were building it. We didn't make any promises about level of service, but our thought was that every time someone gets on the network, we learn something.


Folks have indeed used the system. A surprising number of people sign on every day. In fact, it's been kind of stressful not having a help-desk staff to solve all of the little problems.


We advised citizens that eventually there would be a cost for doing this. We would try to keep free access in some public spaces - parks, libraries, City Hall, those types of places. That's still part of the plan. But eventually, to truly provide a commercial-grade level of service, that will take someone who does that for a living - that's really not us.


TT: Was the broad deployment of Wi-Fi a hard sell to city

Steve Towns  |  Executive Editor