Municipal Wireless: Making the Case for Wireless/Wired Hybrid Infrastructure

Building a hybrid fiber/wireless infrastructure can go a long way to quickly get community broadband benefits to urban and rural areas.

by / August 12, 2016

Despite the fact that AT&T and Verizon stores are abundant in many neighborhoods, it doesn’t take much to show that large incumbents do not adequately serve urban communities. Many cities — such as Columbus, Ohio; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Longmont, Colo. — build better, faster, cheaper networks and offer better customer service.

Tom Spear, CEO of network infrastructure services provider enfoPoint Solutions, said he believes boosting competition can help.

“As soon as Google announced they planned to provide gigabit to Nashville," he said, "that was the first time Comcast indicated they could provide a gig to their business customers.”

And Google's recent news about its move into the wireless world highlights how Google, municipalities and others can bring stronger competition to incumbents.

Many elected officials and community leaders in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities get righteously giddy about the prospect of becoming the next gig city — until they get the estimated price tag.

“If cities were to step back from their conventional fiber-centric way of thinking, they could build infrastructure with a fraction of the cost of traditional fiber and still deliver gigabit service citywide,” said Derick Lee, CEO of PilotCity. “The innovations in wireless are phenomenal.”

Building a hybrid fiber/wireless infrastructure can go a long way to quickly get community broadband benefits to urban and rural areas.

Benefits to government can be quick

In 2004, Philadelphia estimated it could have saved $2 million a year by replacing incumbents’ cellular services for its 2,000 mobile city government workers and 300 remote offices. The city would have instead paid $20 per month to lease wireless services from Wireless Philadelphia (now defunct), a nonprofit created by the city, as well as eliminated T1 lines to the city’s remote facilities.

Also at that time, Houston contemplated purchasing smart parking meters. But rather than paying $80,000 each month to buy cellular wireless access for the meters to work, the city figured it could build a Wi-Fi network and eliminate those recurring costs. Officials estimated that payback would happen in eight months, and the savings beyond that could underwrite the network’s operations costs.

Fast forward to 2016. Wireless-enabled mobile city employees, remote offices and smart parking meters can yield similar results. New smart city services or products manage and distribute transportation, energy, parking, public safety, wastewater management and other resource management data using hybrid infrastructure.

Columbus has installed 400 square miles of fiber cable, including a fiber cable going to every traffic light. It’s easy to imagine adding access points capable of delivering 100 or 200 megabytes of speed to its mobile workers. The city of Austin, Texas, plans to convert its park-and-ride system into a central hub for a variety of smart transportation options such as buses, car sharing, automated taxis and bike sharing. Vendor Olidata Smart Cities and the city of San Leandro, Calif., use an Internet of Things app and a microgrid to manage carbon emission reductions and energy security.

Hybrid infrastructure facilitates health-care delivery

In hospitals, patients' initial examinations could be conducted by doctors in different cities who view high-definition online video via fiber networks. Family and friends could visit wirelessly with a loved one who's admitted to a hospital in a neighboring state. And patients' rehab and recovery could be improved using Internet-based software to access medical personnel, online content and patient-to-patient collaboration.

For resource management in medical facilities, broadband, sensors, RFID systems and Wi-Fi are key —and the data for thousands of patients must be kept secure on fiber networks. Wireless functionality increases hospitals’ ability to manage everything from beds to wheelchairs to heart pumps, preventing theft and ensuring the productive use these resources. This helps health-care facilities’ financial sustainability and quality of care.

Some of these same technologies also are critical for patient management.

Jory Wolf, former CIO for the city of Santa Monica, Calif., said he sees broadband helping injured people at accident scenes to receive doctor-supervised treatment. A nurse can schedule surgery facilities in several hospitals, and put people and resources in place while waiting for the final decision on where the patient will end up.

“We could use wireless to transport data from the ambulance,” he said. “Patients when they arrive would get through the ER faster or actually go directly to their ultimate hospital treatment area.”

Resolving digital inclusion challenges

The innovation that is driving wireless makes it a great tool for digital inclusion efforts. Sometimes it is the skillful use of technology and ingenuity when developing business models that can help to close the digital divide.

Mobile hot spots from Mobile Beacon offer average download speeds of 8 to 10 Mbps and have no data caps. Nationwide, 75 libraries are pilot-testing them, letting patrons borrow the units for several weeks or up to a year before having to return them. The New York Public Library, for example, ordered 10,000 hotspots to distribute in its 92 locations.

Ron Deus, CEO of Cleveland's WISP NetX, offers 1 gig wireless, and said he finds that with Wi-Fi or point-to-point/multipoint, wireless infrastructure is cheaper than fiber. His business customers can make his ROI numbers, and at the same time, he can service low-income customers at a price they can afford.

“Given this flexibility, we are experimenting with different business models, different pricing, maybe even different service levels, to figure out which variables works," Deus said. "We look at online funding options, public partnerships, potentially free access for some, pay-as-you-go type of service for others.”

Whether a community network’s customers are individuals, companies or organizations, give them gigabit wired or wireless, and they will be happier, more productive users.

“Gigabit wireless technology that lowers capital and operating costs while raising power efficiency, operating distance and connection security will accelerate the deployment of gigabit speed broadband throughout San Leandro and America,” said San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta. “If NASA can operate the Mars Land Rover from Earth, we should be able to figure out how to deploy this technology here on Earth!”

Craig Settles Contributing Writer

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant to local governments, and author of Building the Gigabit City. His latest analysis report is Telehealth and Broadband: In Sickness and In Health, an assessment of why telehealth providers and community broadband builders should work together to drive broadband and telemedicine adoption.