Cloudy Forecast

Regional clouds could be the next generation of municipal wireless networks, but governments must collaborate.

by / March 9, 2007
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 as a government entity operating as a nonprofit -- assuming the 10 communities can come to terms on the IGA's structure and language.

"Whoever is awarded the bid will actually be in contract negotiations with the CWC, not with 10 individual communities," he said. "That was really what we were trying to achieve. We felt if we could come up with a single entity that a private-sector carrier would have to negotiate with, it would be a lot more attractive than having to deal with multiple entities that have different needs and agendas."

Even with the RFP's release, the CWC must determine how to clear several hurdles -- perhaps the most significant of which involves member cities' infrastructure assets. "Assets are still going to be one challenge of the project because each city has its own constraints as to what it can or can't offer up," Bennett said. "There are some legal mechanisms we're trying to get off to the attorneys to figure out how to deal with some of these constraints."

The problem stems from the difference between city charters and which permits a private-sector company must obtain from a city to gain access to infrastructure assets, such as rights of way, traffic light poles or street sign poles, he said. The 10 CWC communities will discuss asset issues as part of crafting the IGA.

Another asset issue concerns how a commercial vendor could access the region's power poles, which are owned by Xcel Energy. "This creates a fairly large challenge," Bennett said. "In some other initiatives around the country, the cities themselves own the power poles, which make it a lot easier."

Civitium is negotiating with the energy company about a pole-lease rate, which should help keep the project attractive to vendors replying to the RFP.

County Wi-Fi
A couple thousand miles away, two New Jersey counties, Camden and Gloucester, announced plans in December 2006 to begin work on a joint Wi-Fi network that would cover their combined 550 square miles, and offer free or low-cost service to 800,000 residents.

It's early in the process, said Steve Sweeney, director of the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the counties began 2007 by putting the RFP together and searching for a firm to perform a feasibility study of the proposed Wi-Fi cloud.

The RFP was slated for release in March. At the end of the 90-day response period, Sweeney said, the counties will consider their options, including what proposed business model would work best for the Wi-Fi cloud.

Sweeney said the counties became interested in collaborating on a Wi-Fi cloud because alone they were at a disadvantage with respect to economic development opportunities, and they didn't already have countywide broadband to speak of. "If we can come up with a Wi-Fi network, it will make our region much more competitive," he said. "My county has roughly 275,000 residents. Camden County has 500,000 residents. Individually we're not a big enough market for someone to be really attracted to. Together, we feel we're more attractive."

Sweeney, who's also a state senator, said some towns in his legislative district, which covers southern New Jersey, are so small that residents don't even have cable TV -- a harsh economic reality that he said he understands. "For the cable companies and the Verizons of the world, it's not profitable to run their technology down there," he said. "There aren't enough customers. A Wi-Fi cloud will give these communities the potential to have Internet access at a very affordable price, whether it be free or low cost."

Neither county assumed a "lead" role, according Sweeney. Both counties' IT departments pitch in where necessary, and both counties kicked in $125,000 each to fund the feasibility study. If the cloud gets built, the counties would encourage other, surrounding counties to join the network. And there is precedent for county and municipal collaboration. In 1999, Sweeney said, counties -- together with school districts, municipalities and other government agencies -- created the South Jersey Power Cooperative. In Gloucester County alone, 17 municipalities and school districts belong to the cooperative.

Outdoor Wi-Fi
In New York, Suffolk and Nassau counties have launched WiFi Long Island with the goal of providing Wi-Fi access to all 900 square miles of Suffolk County and 300 square miles of Nassau County. The push for the Wi-Fi network came from Steve Levy, county executive of Suffolk County, who created a 15-member Suffolk County Wireless Commission (SCWC) in February 2006 to orchestrate the WiFi Long Island initiative. The SCWC includes representatives from the private and public sectors, higher education and other entities.

WiFi Long Island differs from other municipal Wi-Fi initiatives because the goal isn't to provide service inside every home in the two counties, said Sharon Cates-Williams, CIO and commissioner of Suffolk County's Department of Information Technology. Cates-Williams also serves as co-chair of the SCWC, along with legislator Wayne Horsley.

"We're talking about an outdoor network," Cates-Williams said. "It's another level of service, because we recognize that, in the future, more work is going to be done outside the home. There's going to be more of a need for a mobile work force. We already have a mobile work force out there, and we want to help them operate more efficiently."

The wireless network would provide a backbone for service providers that, in turn, would offer tiers of wireless connectivity to residential customers. The counties themselves will not own or operate the network.

The two counties issued an RFP in January 2007, and set a deadline of March 19, 2007, for interested vendors to submit proposals. Suffolk and Nassau formed a nonprofit entity known as the Wireless Suffolk County Local Development Corporation (LDC) in late 2006 to negotiate with local governments inside the counties for access to assets owned by towns, villages and utility companies.

"The local development corporation would do all the legwork so the responder [to the RFP] won't have to go to every town and village," Cates-Williams said, adding that WiFi Long Island leaders may create a global agreement between the Wireless Suffolk County LDC and the 107 municipalities on Long Island.

"For example, should the provider need to install a wireless node on a facility or streetlight located and owned by a town or village, the global agreement would define the permitting process and ultimately eliminate the need to negotiate on an individual basis," she said. "We don't know if the towns and villages are going to accept it, but we do plan to recommend this method of operation."

The two counties expect a good crop of vendors to vie for the right to build the network, given the level of response to the initial RFI released in July 2006.

Heavyweights such as IBM, Motorola, Verizon and Cablevision replied to the 2006 RFI, as did National Grid Wireless, a U.S.-based subsidiary of National Grid. The parent company delivers electricity and natural gas to the Northeastern United States, and National Grid Wireless provides telecommunications infrastructure and wireless services.

The SCWC's inclusion of representatives from higher education -- specifically from the Center for Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology (CEWIT), one of Stony Brook University's three research and development incubators -- also sets WiFi Long Island apart from other municipal Wi-Fi initiatives.

When Suffolk's Levy first considered WiFi Long Island, he met with the CEWIT's CEO, who's also the dean of Stony Brook's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to discuss the merits of the idea, Cates-Williams said.

"We think the educational institutions on the island are really going to benefit from this wireless initiative," she said, adding that CEWIT is contributing to WiFi Long Island by committing staff expertise to the initiative. "CEWIT is doing some amazing things. It's a new facility. They're going to have incubators, and will be doing all kinds of research. The wireless project fits in with their whole mission."

Silicon Cloud
With a roster including more than 40 city and county local governments, California's Wireless Silicon Valley is the biggest public-sector partnership created to form a regional wireless cloud. When completed, the Wireless Silicon Valley initiative will create a wireless network covering a 1,500-square-mile region that's home to approximately 2.4 million residents.

Two member cities, Palo Alto and San Carlos, played guinea pig in early February. Their respective city councils became the first to approve two model agreements -- one setting the terms of general wireless services for communities and the other stipulating enhanced services that meet public-sector agencies' needs.

The agreements serve as templates for other local governments' use, and will make it simpler for Metro Connect -- a coalition including Cisco Systems, IBM, Azulstar and SeaKay -- to negotiate with the cities and counties constituting Wireless Silicon Valley. Metro Connect won the RFP in September 2006 to build the wireless network.

By approving the agreements, the two cities became testing grounds for the Metro Connect technology behind Wireless Silicon Valley, said Brian Moura, assistant city manager of San Carlos and co-chair of the Wireless Silicon Valley task force. "[The Metro Connect coalition] wanted to get one city in each of the two main counties," Moura said. "They also wanted different cities. Palo Alto has its own electric utility so it's a different animal than say, San Carlos. While we own the streetlights in San Carlos, our power comes from PG&E [a private utility company].

"In one respect, Metro Connect is deploying the technology that they envision using for the whole network in these two communities," Moura continued. "But they're also testing all of the other processes -- how you get a permit or what other cooperative agreement you need."

The two cities' one-square-mile test zones incorporate a mix of customers -- small businesses, schools, residences and parks -- to test the load that a diverse blend of wireless users will put on the network, he explained.

Getting to this stage required some creative thinking by the winning vendor team and the participating local governments, Moura said.

Since September 2006, the Wireless Silicon Valley task force has been negotiating three agreement documents with the Metro Connect team, and both sides have made significant progress. Two of the agreements cover service levels, and the governing body of each participating city or county will have to approve the model agreements so Metro Connect can begin installing the necessary equipment.

The other document is a joint powers agreement to define the governance structure for the network, and how that governing entity will work with Metro Connect. "We're in the process of creating a new entity called the Wireless Silicon Valley Authority," Moura said. "That was an interesting decision. There were mixed feelings about it. We're also thinking we might set up a steering committee to work across the two groups to coordinate the whole project."

Wireless Silicon Valley is more than just a wireless broadband network, he said. In fact, Wi-Fi compatibility is secondary to what the network is designed to accomplish.

The network will be designed to test public safety applications that ride on specified network frequencies; backhaul technologies, whether fiber, microwave or optical fiber; and services for the private sector on higher network frequencies.

"Really the purpose of this is to provide not only regional broadband wireless coverage, but also to provide a technology platform for not only the cities and counties but also for residents, small businesses and venture capitalists," Moura said. "We're trying to address a lot of different markets here."

Photo by Lyle Krannichfeld
Shane Peterson Associate Editor