Cities and towns have recently gotten plenty of practice in striking creative deals with the private sector to get citywide wireless networks off the ground. The most recent estimates suggest that 300 municipal wireless projects were under way as of August 2006.

That practice should come in handy as communities turn to regional wireless clouds that will cover hundreds of square miles and provide wireless Internet access to hundreds of thousands of people. Regional clouds represent the next step in municipal wireless networks' evolution.

To this point, cities and towns created wireless zones in strategic areas -- downtown or tourist destinations -- to target specific crowds. These zones covered areas from a couple of blocks to perhaps a square mile.

Now when launching the regional clouds, cities and counties can use their aptitude for compromise in crafting agreements with each other -- but these deals might prove more complex as governments negotiate access to infrastructure assets and intergovernmental agreements' structure and language.

Colorado Cloud

Ten Colorado communities have already made significant progress on such a partnership, creating the Colorado Wireless Communities (CWC) in April 2006, which formed when Colorado cities joined to pursue the goal of affordable wireless broadband for the region encompassing the cities. The cloud will improve government efficiency, promote digital inclusion and stimulate economic development.

Fast forward to January 2007; the CWC released an RFP for a "universal, affordable wireless broadband network" to serve an expanded CWC membership of 10 cities sprawling over an area of 197 square miles and playing home to approximately 620,000 people.

Over the course of 2006, the CWC retained Civitium -- a consulting firm that specializes in local governments and wireless technologies, especially Wi-Fi zones and clouds -- to study the viability of a regional Wi-Fi cloud. The company arranged focus group meetings with 236 participants representing 11 groups of stakeholders from government and outside entities to judge interest and support.

Forty-seven percent of the participants were CWC city employees representing four categories of city agencies; the remaining 57 percent came from 151 community groups, including universities, economic-development entities, the private and nonprofit sectors, health-care organizations, federal agencies and residents.

Thornton, Colo., acted on behalf of the CWC to issue the RFP, said Mark Bennett, Thornton's IT director, adding that five communities assumed lead roles in the CWC project. "One took charge of the Web site," he said. "One took charge of putting together a lot of the statistical information and demographics that went into the RFP; one took care of the mapping and so forth; and our role was to facilitate putting the RFP out onto the street."

The "founding five" CWC communities approached a dozen other communities in the region, five of which agreed to join, Bennett said, adding that the others expressed doubts about having the necessary resources to participate or whether their respective city councils considered a Wi-Fi network a high political priority.

The CWC's genesis was a series of informal, grass-roots talks in mid-2005 between CIOs of the five founding cities, who discussed the feasibility of a wireless cloud covering the cities. A year later, and after recruiting five more cities, the CWC was formally launched.

"That was when we had the 10 communities sign a memorandum of understanding [MOU], and that MOU loosely bound us all to the project," Bennett said. The MOU created a framework for the CWC from which the members could issue a joint RFP. In addition, the MOU set forth details about sharing costs, such as legal and consulting fees, associated with issuing the RFP.

Assets in Play

The CWC is now taking the next step.

"We're going through a formal intergovernmental agreement [IGA] process with the 10 communities," Bennett said. Such an agreement is needed to give the CWC legal standing

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor