Royal WiSac

If a Sacramento, Calif., coalition gets its way, nine counties in the region will be king for a day, every day.

by / November 5, 2006

Imagine that a fire, flood, major earthquake or similar other potential catastrophe hits your city or town. You might feel good knowing plenty of emergency responders are stationed in different areas throughout the region. But now imagine that they can't communicate with one another.

This is just one of the issues that prompted the creation of the Wireless Sacramento, Calif., Regional Project (WiSac), an initiative that, once completed, will blanket nine counties in the Sacramento region with Wi-Fi access.

Butte, Sacramento, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Solano, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties participate in the project, which is still in the early stages.

WiSac is the brainchild of the Smart Capitol Venture Network (SCVN), a nonprofit organization formed by a group of visionaries, educators and entrepreneurs in the Sacramento region.

Wi-Fi means much more than Internet access at cafes. One purpose behind WiSac is a permanent connection for the emergency personnel that keep the region safe in times of crisis.

"If everywhere you went there is going to be a wireless signal, there will be all the extra security that comes with monitoring things," said Geof Lambert, vice president and chief operating officer of SCVN. "We can have sensors on the levee system to track humidity and temperatures, so we can prevent accidents and disasters from happening."

In the event of a disaster, there's a big chance that those who really need to be in communication with one another won't be because the lines are overloaded.

"If we had a 7.0 earthquake, if we had 100 percent capacity communication possible, 10 minutes from now, it really might only be 10 percent [capacity]," Lambert said.

The problem is that the mayor, firefighters and other emergency responders aren't necessarily going to be the people able to use that limited capacity, he explained, adding that it might be regular folks, like landscapers or barbers, who aren't likely the people anyone would want showing up in case of emergency.

If a natural disaster happens, Lambert said, WiSac will provide a Wi-Fi network that will let emergency responders set up temporary communications, and the access must be prioritized.

"In a major disaster, the network would auto-heal itself and take the limited capacity available and redirect the communication," Lambert said. "Within minutes, we could have a communications network where the most important people have the ability to talk to one another with the most basic pieces of equipment and devices, such as a Palm Pilot, telephone and basic consumer kinds of tools."

What does a police officer or firefighter communicate with? "Their voices," Lambert said. "But wouldn't it be valuable for him to communicate what he's seen? Communicate the blueprints of a burning building? The schematics of a disaster? If I were king for a day, I'd want that guy to show up."

Though Lambert speaks of the possibility of transmitting blueprints over a wireless connection; contrast it with the device a fireman might have -- say a walkie-talkie for voice-only communication over a radio frequency. It's one-way communication, which is insufficient in a disaster.

A similar project, the Wireless Silicon Valley Network, served as a model for the Sacramento venture, Lambert said. "They were having success with that project, and we realized whatever works over there more than likely can work in the Sacramento region."

Lambert said that as the SCVN pushes this initiative through, those people involved in the project understand there are lessons to learn from past ventures.

"With each passing day, things that used to be problematic aren't so problematic anymore," he said. "And the expectations are different. The expectations of what providing wireless over any particular region or area exactly means. Does it mean strictly outside or inside without any extra equipment? There are just so many combinations and variables, costs and level of service."

Lambert said that the group is currently preparing an RFP. "In the RFP, it's open to the vendor community to decide what kinds of business models they think will work and fit themselves accordingly."

This doesn't mean the group doesn't have an idea of what they'd like the RFP process might yield.

"If we were king for a day, one vendor might be a consortium of independent companies," he said. "But it could be one company or a mix of four or five companies."

The SCVN is still gathering information, a simple task because it has other RFPs to draw from, Lambert said.

The beauty of the project, he added, is that the vendors will be responsible for the implementation costs. "It is important to emphasize that this is not a taxpayer expense in any way, shape or form. It's an amazing return on an investment of zero."

The nine counties involved in the WiSac project also participate in the network's development.

"We have an entity called the advisory council of the coalition, and they're representatives from a variety of different agencies and municipalities," Lambert said. In addition to county representatives who provide any technical expertise they might have, the group welcomes input from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, school districts, hospital systems and the Red Cross.

Lambert said WiSac is a no-brainer, since the technology is available to keep people safe and connected.

"The difference between what's technically possible and what we are doing is scary," he said. "There are people using cassette players and there are people using iPods. WiSac is like giving an iPod to the emergency services community."
Eliot Cole Contributing Writer