Never the sort of place to go along with the crowd, the seaside border city of Brownsville is taking a novel approach in its new citywide wireless network, leaving Wi-Fi hubs to households and coffee shops, and building its own system on powerful, but largely untested, Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) technology.

As the city unveils the system this fall, Brownsville will be joining just a handful of cities around the country to buck the Wi-Fi trend and put their money behind WiMAX. City officials say they made the potentially risky choice not in the interest of being early adopters, but because it promised the security and stability they were looking for.

"I think it was a better choice for the city, which is what we asked IBM for: Give us what's best for Brownsville, not what everybody else is doing," said Gail Bruciak, Brownsville Management Information Systems director.

Long-touted as the "next big thing" in wireless, WiMAX has dazzled industry watchers with its promised improvements over Wi-Fi: stronger signals, greater information-carrying capacity and a range of more than 30 miles from a single transmitter. That extra range means cities can cover their entire area with just a few towers, akin to cellular transmitters, instead of countless little Wi-Fi nodes scattered around town. WiMAX technology uses licensed frequencies around 2.5 GHz, and works on an 802.16 standard set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which developed the 802.11 standard on which Wi-Fi is based.

Because WiMAX uses signals at licensed frequencies not open to the public, the city can count on its data moving quickly and privately without interference. By depending on three strong towers for the WiMAX signal, Brownsville emergency services will have access to the network when foul weather might disable other types of wireless infrastructure.

 

Operationally Driven
While the most publicized municipal wireless networks are built to provide Internet access for the general population, Brownsville's WiMAX network is mostly for carrying the data load for official city business. The WiMAX system, new servers and data storage, and a Web-enabled software suite, are all part of a sweeping, $4.2 million deal with IBM to revamp Brownsville's technology. The new equipment will create a much-needed change in the city's IT infrastructure, Bruciak said.

"We're running everything for the city, with the exception of emergency services, on an HP3000 from 1994. The software is COBOL - it's old. Of course, there's no maintenance for it, we can't get parts for [the system] anymore," she said. "So we knew we had to migrate off."

IBM Project Manager Sean Guy said the grand scope of the Brownsville project is what makes it so unique. "This effort is not simply a wireless deployment," he said, calling it a "complete refresh of the core IT infrastructure."

The city contracted with IBM for system design and deployment, but local service provider Rioplex Broadband will maintain the network. The five-year deal with Rioplex brought the total cost of the project to $6.6 million. "It's relatively inexpensive," Bruciak said, pointing out that with the WiMAX equipment and signal towers, the city avoids the cost of buying and installing Wi-Fi nodes around the city.

To pay for the project, Bruciak said the city relied heavily on grant funding - and the creativity it takes to tap the right funding sources.

"Basically we went out and borrowed money to get this," she said, funding much of the project through the city's annual capital projects bond issue. Beyond that, Bruciak said the city cast a broad net in its grant applications.

"We started with the tech grants, and they sort of dried up. Then we looked at homeland security, but it's so hard to get that sort of funding," she said. The city struck out in

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.