On a trip to the United Arab Emirates several years ago, L. Brooks Patterson visited Dubai and the Dubai Internet City. Besides the architecture, what struck him most, he said, was the always-on, broadband wireless Internet access blanketing 4 square miles of the Internet City.
"That was my first exposure to that," he said. "When I came home, I sat down with my IT group and said, 'Phil [Bertolini], can we do this, except on a larger scale?' About a week or so later, he got back to me and said, 'Yes, we think we can do it.' That was the genesis of Wireless Oakland."
Wireless Oakland is Patterson's plan to cover the county with free wireless Internet service, and it may be the most high-profile IT project that he's launched in his 13 years as county executive.
He said seeding a Wi-Fi cloud to cover the county's 910 square miles with free wireless Internet access turned out to be more challenging than he anticipated.
"Who would have thought we'd need [access to] 20,000 [streetlight] poles from DTE Energy?" he recalled. "The magnitude of the undertaking was underestimated, but we've met the challenge and are now moving forward."
Troy, Mich., will be the crown jewel of Wireless Oakland, he said, and the city will be equipped with the most current bells and whistles possible for a Wi-Fi network. The plan is to turn Troy into a demo city for elected officials from around the country to tour.
"Citizens see us in a different light with a program like Wireless Oakland," he said. "Instead of just being garbage and tax collectors, government is actually contributing in a positive way to the quality of life in our community."
Patterson has been at the forefront of technology advancements for 31 years, when Oakland County rolled out the Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System (CLEMIS) in the 1960s.
"I was an assistant prosecutor, and I was on the first [CLEMIS] committee," he recalled, and waded into the task of trying to distill 43 law enforcement agencies' different incident reports into one. "There were 43 initial incident reports. Nobody had the same report, and so the first year was getting everybody to give up their pet forms."
CLEMIS has now expanded to seven counties.
As Patterson's deputy, Phil Bertolini finds himself among a growing number of local government CIOs with an expanded role in executive leadership. Bertolini was appointed deputy county executive of Oakland County in January 2005 -- four years after he was named CIO and director of the Department of Information Technology.
Bertolini is currently in the midst of overseeing Wireless Oakland, which hit an important milestone in January 2007 when installation of Wi-Fi gear kicked off in the seven cities that constitute Phase One of the rollout. County officials expect to be finished with Phase One communities in April 2007, bringing free Internet access to more than 75,000 county residents.
"We want to make sure the Internet is in the hands of everyone in our county," Bertolini said. "We have 1.2 million residents in the county, and 300,000 people come into our county every day to go to work."
Though Oakland County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States based on per-capita income, he said, a substantial segment of the county's population is low income.
"That was a key piece of Wireless Oakland -- we wanted free bandwidth for everyone in the county," he said. "The second piece is that we want to provide PCs at either no cost or at a low cost, and training to those folks in our county who need it the most."
Another Wireless Oakland goal is the development of a Telecommunication and Technology Planning Toolkit to support continuing high-tech investments in local
governments in the county.
The 2004 start meant the county didn't have a lot of existing business models to study. Municipal wireless wasn't in vogue back then.
"It was tough because we didn't have a road map to follow," he recalled, though officials made some quick decisions after looking at available information. "We didn't want to own or operate the network, and we didn't want to pay for it."
Oakland County concluded that providing access to county infrastructure, such as streetlights, water towers, siren poles and traffic lights -- at no charge and with no permitting or licensing fees -- was the fastest way to make Wireless Oakland happen. In addition, any company that took the county up on its offer got to keep all revenues from selling higher-bandwidth services or advertising.
"Some folks were a little concerned about that," he recalled. "My response to that is that the taxpayers of Oakland County have been investing in public infrastructure for years and years through their tax dollars. Now, let's get a return on that investment for them."