n, and order parts - all remotely using wireless technology. That obviously fit right in with what we were doing on Wi-Fi.


We decided we were going to coordinate our technology in ways so we weren't duplicating efforts between departments. So we took a very strategic and coordinated approach to 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 leadership?


SN: I think there was excellent buy-in. When we were able to justify the bulk of our initial outlay using the AMR connection, all we needed to do after that was explain the other uses. The City Council realized quickly that this was an opportunity to enhance service or reduce cost.


For example, we may be using a traditional radio signal for certain kinds of things that can be done at a lower cost and with better quality using the Wi-Fi network. As we look at replacing computers in police cars, we're looking at moving to Wi-Fi technology. As we look to improve our building inspection system, we've already piloted the remote input from inspectors. Those things represent investments that we would have made anyway. Now we can use the better and cheaper technology.


In my experience, some things were costing us more because the traditional radio carriers had commanded expensive maintenance agreements and requirements. A lot of the things we were doing that were radio-based were becoming very expensive because of that ongoing contract cost.


TT: So it was easy to see that this approach made sense?


SN: Yes. Plus, the City Council also saw the potential to get out in front of a technology that might position Corpus Christi differently in terms of the quality of life and the economic development benefits.


TT: That's become a big concern among communities of all sizes. Has this become something communities must do to stay competitive?


SN: Our impression is this is the way of the future. Whether it's Wi-Fi now, or WiMAX four years from now, or whatever rolls out after that. If you're not doing these wireless systems that enable folks to be unplugged, you're going to be behind the power curve.


You almost have to start viewing it as part of the basic infrastructure. You would not consider moving to a neighborhood that didn't have streets and water. We think this is the next element of infrastructure that will be necessary in every community.


TT: The wireless industry remains relatively immature, and it certainly was when you started doing this. What are some of the challenges created by that?


SN: There's no question there was an element of risk. We were comforted by the folks who were working with us on this project. The folks at Northrop Grumman continue to be really great partners in making sure we have a system that works.


We also spent a lot of time working with the folks at Intel as technology advisers to get insight into where the technology was going. They were quite helpful in telling us how long lasting the technology was going to be. They helped us understand how secure we could be in making this investment.


I think we accepted early on that doing a municipal service network, we could make the network we're building last for an extended period of time because we're controlling the end-user devices and the applications. So we started out from a position that had less risk.


One advantage of partnerships is that the commercial sector is going to be more interested in continuing to upgrade and move forward, and they can generate the revenue to support that. So you begin to share that risk. We knew all along that we could take care of ourselves for 10 years and be successful. If we want to be more bleeding edge than that, our partners can work with us to help generate the resources to do that.


TT: What advice do you have for communities currently contemplating Wi-Fi deployments?


SN: I think you need to decide what you're trying to accomplish first. Part of what distinguishes our network from the others, is we started out as a municipal service provider that was going to use the technology to be better at municipal service provision. Everything beyond that was great, but it was an additional benefit. So you need to decide if your focus is city service provision or whether this is truly a commercial enterprise that's intended to be community focus, because your strategy might be different depending on which way you go.


Second, I encourage folks to think about return on investment, a concept that we don't do very well in government. I'm not saying we do it very well, either, because I certainly couldn't tell you the ROI on everything that we're doing here. But that's certainly an area where municipal managers could benefit from the ability to measure what we do and quantify the benefit of what we do.


TT: You've played an active role in the city's Wi-Fi initiative. Is that unusual for a city manager?


SN: I'm not as hands on as it might sound. I've got a great staff, which helps. I've been directly involved in a lot of the collaboration we've done with Intel, as well as looking at how we can develop new ways of being productive and effective working with health care, education and others.


I'm certainly not a techno-nerd, but I don't print out my e-mails. I'm beyond that. We've had a goal to use technology strategically. We've also been very externally focused. We've had a lot of dialog with the business community and the educational community. My staff helped facilitate those interfaces and collaboration.


TT: Many organizations struggle to align their technology with business or policy goals. It sounds like Corpus Christi has been successful in doing that. Why?


SN: We've tried to really talk about how everything integrates and how it all works toward what we're trying to accomplish in terms of outcomes. One of the things we're involved with right now is the implementation of a balanced scorecard program. It's really just a technique to make sure we're using real-time data from our systems to make decisions about how to deploy resources to effect outcomes for our citizens.


So if our goal is to provide three-minute response time for a fire truck 80 percent of the time, we keep track of that so we don't figure out that we had a problem a month ago, we figure out that we have a problem today. The systems are there to be able to do that, but in the end, it's not about the systems. It's about the level of service and using good, real-time data to make decisions that impact on the customer.

Steve Towns  |  Executive Editor