Ponca City, Okla. Ponca City, Okla.

A decade ago, cities jumped on the free municipal wireless bandwagon, but free was not a very good business plan, and most projects went dark when cities or vendors pulled the plug. Today free wireless is most commonly offered by public libraries and businesses wanting to attract customers, and only a few localities still offer citywide coverage. But as mobile devices proliferate and the thirst for connectivity grows, free municipal wireless may be poised for a comeback.

One of the United States’ most successful muni Wi-Fi examples is located in a small city in northern Oklahoma — not necessarily what many picture as a cutting-edge, highly connected tech hub. But Ponca City is.

Home to 25,000 residents, Ponca City is 90 miles equidistant from Wichita, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. It has a world-class wireless network providing free Wi-Fi across its 25 square miles, an unusual

attraction these days for a city “90 miles from anywhere.” The free wireless mesh service — which is so fast and forward-looking that Kansas City, Apple and Google came calling to check it out — has been so successful that Ponca City again is hosting delegations from Oklahoma, throughout the U.S. and places as far away as Australia and Italy.

So what makes Ponca City’s wireless network a long-term success, and what suggestions do city officials have for other areas that want to replicate it?

It all starts with fiber, said Technology Services Director Craige Baird and City Manager Craig Stephenson. But fiber’s price tag stops many local governments in their tracks, especially when they want to do it in a year instead of building a network out slowly over a number of years.

“Other cities want to get where we are,” Baird said, “but they say, ‘Well, that’s just too expensive.’ The biggest problem other cities have is that they want to do it this year. Not ‘I want to do it over 10 years.’ It’s too big an investment and so it gets killed. The first thing is get some fiber out there; start small and work your way up.” Ponca City began 15 years ago, steadily adding fiber for city communications and disaster recovery. Today it has 350 miles of fiber that have opened vast opportunities to the city and its residents.

“Cities can’t do it, it’s too hard,” is the next obstacle, Stephenson said. “You’re told to leave it up to the big guys.” But that’s not true, he said. The city’s Technology Services and Ponca City Energy ran the fiber and did the fusing and installation in-house.

Then in 2008, the city launched a wireless network to make GIS available in real time for public safety, public works, utilities and development services. Ponca City spent $2.3 million to buy the radios, and again city crews stepped up. “One of the benefits is we own the electric system,” Stephenson said. “So we own the poles, and we put the radios where we need to put them.”

Businesses were eager to buy bandwidth on the system after the city’s needs were met, and that’s what “buys the pipe,” as Stephenson said. An additional 200 megabytes of bandwidth was allocated to resident use over the public mesh network that blankets the city.

Five hundred ABB Tropos radios cover the city’s 25 square miles, with 150 more just added to serve the system’s 17,000 users. Stephenson and Baird are very pleased with the results. Ponca City touts the initiative as the fastest Wi-Fi mesh network in the world, with speeds of 3 to 8 megabytes per user, transferring a total of nearly a terabyte of data per day.

While the network can be accessed by wireless-enabled devices throughout the city, residents can install a Wi-Fi modem in their house to receive a stronger signal indoors. The optional modem, called a Pepwave, costs about $150 and comes set up to connect to the free public network. The city got local computer stores to stock and support the devices, and in so doing, helped those businesses.

The benefits to the city were striking. “A disaster recovery system replicates every five minutes with dual-path fiber, so we basically iCloud our own organization,” Baird said. “Since city desktops and servers are all virtual, users can get their office desktops over the Wi-Fi anywhere out in the field.”

And since it’s carried on the city Wi-Fi network, there are no extra costs involved. Some cities contract to get cellular signals in police cars, which runs $20 to $30 per car each month. “We don’t do that,” Baird said. “Our vehicles do not have any cellular signals piped into them, so that’s another cost savings.”

But there’s more to the network than hard-dollar cost savings. During the recent recession, the $30 to $70 per month residents had previously paid to commercial Internet service providers stayed in Ponca City, helping “churn the economy,” Stephenson said.

In addition, Stephenson and Baird cited the network as a huge benefit to the schools and career technology center to help train and keep students in the area for economic development. Eighth-graders up through high school have electronic textbooks, laptops or notebooks, said Stephenson, “and that was only possible because everyone inside the city limits has Internet access.”

The wireless also helps attract and retain professionals — such as the scientists and engineers employed by Phillips 66 — with the kind of connectivity they would find in Houston or Denver.

Stephenson said an initiative like this doesn’t happen overnight but by steadily adding to it over time, and that requires a governing body that buys into the plan. “You can’t get halfway through it and someone says, ‘I don’t want to fund it anymore.’ We’ve been blessed here in Ponca City. We’ve had commissioners change, but they bought into what we do and they’ve stayed the course.”

Technology changes rapidly, so what does Baird think about how the network might evolve? He said cellular companies will be pushing out new technologies and there may be a day that Ponca City will decide to change its network technology. But for now, he said, it is working very well serving the city and the public, and as long as it continues to do so, there’s no reason to change.

Wayne Hanson  |  Staff Writer and Editor of Digital Communities

Wayne E. Hanson has been a writer and editor with e.Republic since 1989, and has worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and is currently editor and writer for Digital Communities specializing in local government. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education. He self-published three books of fiction and lives in Sacramento with his wife, Jeannie.