On the day The New York Times published an editorial stating "local governments are filling a leadership void at the federal and state levels" when it comes to wireless Internet access, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sat down in his office and quietly proved the nation's leading newspaper wrong. As of June 2006, nearly 250 cities nationwide had launched some kind of wireless service with virtually no support from state governments. Now Georgia is one of the first states in the country to push this growing trend to a new level of acceptance.
The governor made his move on May 19, 2006, announcing the availability of funding to help Georgia communities establish wireless broadband networks. But on June 6, he revealed why this initiative was of such importance to the state. "We still want Wi-Fi to be local government led," Perdue said. "But the role of the state as a partner is to inspire, encourage and 'incentivize' local governments to do what we believe will benefit their communities in our state."
The program will provide funding to at least three communities, although representatives from more than 100 showed up in Atlanta the day before to learn about the program, which will make $4 million available to kick-start wireless access. The program is managed by the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), under the direction of state CIO Thomas Wade.
Perdue described the funding as seed money for a handful of cities that, hopefully, will lead to a broadband build-out across the state. "I do think it's the role of government to provide opportunities," he said. "I look forward to providing incentive money in the future, but this is the start."
From Multiplan to WiMax
The governor's term began Jan. 13, 2003, but his political career started a couple of decades earlier when he served on the Houston County Planning and Zoning Board. Later, he was elected to the Georgia Legislature and served in the General Assembly and Senate before launching his successful campaign for governor.
Perdue has used technology almost as long as he's been in politics. During an interview with Government Technology magazine, he recounted using 300 baud modems and Multiplan -- one of the first spreadsheets expressly designed to run on a PC. His interest and understanding of technology continue to this day, according to Wade, who said Perdue is an active user of BlackBerries, laptops and voice over Internet protocol. When discussions were under way over what wireless technology would best serve local communities, Perdue worked with GTA in evaluating 802.11 versus 802.16, the emerging protocol for WiMAX connectivity.
His desire to make broadband infrastructure part of his economic, education and overall government policy separates Perdue from other elected officials, said Wade and others who follow state government. "The governor wants to use broadband to connect the last mile," explained Wade, noting that the wireless initiative is designed to promote economic development, expand educational opportunities and improve government through online and mobile services.
Perdue made these points repeatedly. "Economically we have to do this to compete with Taiwan, Korea, China and other developing countries that have almost leapfrogged us with wireless connectivity. We're not trying to mimic them, but we realize the flow of information enables us to be more competitive in the 21st-century economy. So much of our work is information sharing and processing. That implies wireless connectivity."
Deke Copenhaver, mayor of Augusta, Ga., has expressed a strong interest in using Wi-Fi in his municipality. The city of 200,000 is the location of Fort Gordon, the U.S. Army's signal center and home to a major medical center. In response to Perdue's initial announcement earlier this year, the city set up a pilot Wi-Fi service in the Augusta Commons, a park near the city's center.
"I saw the possibilities for Wi-Fi in Augusta, and the pilot project has been going very well," said Copenhaver. "Augusta needs to keep up with the 21st century. We want to stay ahead of the curve." Should it receive a grant from the state, the city's goal will be to build-out Wi-Fi in its center. The mayor sees the network serving not just as a catalyst for economic development but e-government as well.
A Partnership Guy
The governor's initiative -- officially named the Wireless Communities Georgia Program -- has begun accepting applications from city and county governments statewide. Funding recipients must provide a minimum of 25 percent of a project's total cost. Priority will be given to networks operated by a private-sector company.
Perdue believes marketplace involvement will make the wireless venture affordable. "Once people see the benefit of wireless, there will be more demand, more subscribers and less cost. We're not trying to come in and build an exclusively public system," he said. "We think there's more expertise in the private sector to run the operation and management of these systems."
But Perdue emphasizes the need for government participation. "I'm a big partnership guy. I don't want the state to be the exclusive partner in this. I want everyone to have some skin in the game. That's why we chose this relationship involving the state, local governments and the private sector. But I do think it's the role of government to provide opportunities. Maybe where a private-sector provider cannot initially see the numbers that would encourage them to invest, participation of state and local government will get them over the hump and make the investment."
The government participation Perdue refers to is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the entire project. Local and state agencies are expected to be anchor tenants of the wireless network, giving the wireless providers a large and active base of users right from the start.
And having government agencies as early tenants in such a service isn't just to sweeten the pot for wireless providers. Perdue clearly sees the benefits and advantages to online, mobile government. He cited the impact of wireless technology on law enforcement, parole, child welfare and social services, for example. Whether government workers are in the field or telecommuting to avoid wasted hours in congestion, wireless and broadband access can have a huge impact on productivity.
"It's just a much more efficient way of doing business," he said, adding that government managers will need to supervise these workers differently.
"The process of managing people from a performance standard rather than from how long they sit in a chair in front of a desk will tell the tale of whether this is a success in a 21st-century economy. Wireless connectivity will begin to help us judge that. If we employ the tools that help people to be productive where they are, where their job requires them to be, rather than back in the office, filling out reports, it will make sense."
E-government has come a long way in Georgia. For five years, Georgia has ranked in the top 20, according the Center for Digital Government's annual Digital State Survey. Perdue believes the state has matured to the point where it has wrung most of the productivity out of electronic commerce. "The potential for the things we see we can do will grow as we become comfortable with information sharing," he said. "First we have to get a handle on privacy and security protocols."
Closing the Urban-Rural Gap
In addition to $4 million for wireless connectivity, Georgia is providing $5 million to rural communities seeking to establish broadband networks of any kind. That funding is managed by the OneGeorgia Authority, which uses the state's tobacco settlement money to assist the most economically challenged areas. Perdue deplores the urban-rural divide, but acknowledges that new technologies tend to flow first to urban areas.
"As governor, I want the education, economic development and health-care opportunities to be as equally apportioned as possible," he said. "Not every community is going to be the same. It rides on local leadership and local effort, but we do want to give people incentives for their own communities because we find a lot of pride in rural areas as well as in cities."
Perdue believes rural areas have a bounty of benefits that urban areas with their airports, nightlife and major league baseball teams can't match. If they have broadband access, wireless or not, he said, they will hold their own in the 21st-century economy. "The future demands that we are all connected to the world through a wireless or wired portal."
With this initiative, Georgia could become one of the first states to discover what happens to its economy, education and government when urban and rural communities link up to the world.