its homeland security application. Bruciak said grants geared toward transportation, aviation security and other specific areas helped augment the city's existing project funds.

 

Redundant Design
Because the WiMAX system will support city services, Brownsville took steps to ensure redundancy in the system's design.

"The layout of the system is probably the best I've seen any city do," Rioplex President Othal Brand said. He said Brownsville's backup system, in case any part of the network fails, is particularly impressive.

"They're the first ones I've seen to make sure that once the system's up and running, it's totally redundant," he said. That concern for keeping the network running, even in the worst conditions, is especially important for a city on the Gulf Coast with such a high hurricane risk. The IBM servers and 50 terabytes of data storage are split between Bruciak's MIS department, and an off-site concrete bunker built to withstand severe weather.

Brand, whose company is building the WiMAX signal towers for Brownsville, said the city would be covered by two towers, but built a third for extra reliability and signal strength. "They're overlaid, so if one of the three goes out, the other two immediately pick up those people and keep going," Brand said. The towers should be a tough match for the high winds in hurricane season though. Each of the 480-foot signal towers is rated to withstand 165 mph winds, Brand said - 30 mph higher than the new industry standard. Rioplex completed construction of the second tower in July.

Tower construction has been one of the main sticking points as the project moved ahead, thanks to the heavy rain this summer and a complicated approval process with the FCC. More than 20 different agencies - from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Federal Aviation Administration - needed to sign off on the tower plans before the FCC would approve them, according to IBM's Guy.

"Brownsville being a border town complicates things further," he said, "due to international agreements."

From border agreements to hurricane dangers, Brownsville's unique situation dictates much of how its new network is being built, and how quickly. The ability to deliver a signal from three sturdy towers, rather than a multitude of Wi-Fi transmitters, convinced Brownsville officials that WiMAX is right for their city.

 

Uncharted Territory
The allure of WiMAX has kept interest in the technology strong even as its development has stumbled, pushing back release dates and missing benchmarks as engineers fine-tune the new technology. At one time, industry watchers looked for 2006 to be the year WiMAX began taking over the market, but recent estimates say most WiMAX fans will have to wait for 2009 before WiMAX-enabled technology is widely available to consumers in laptops and cell phones. Sprint and Clearwire, in particular, bet heavily on WiMAX taking hold of the market, and Brownsville's technology partner, IBM, is one of a growing number of companies building their WiMAX business.

City government may not seem like an ideal proving ground for a new technology like WiMAX, especially to power services as essential as police and fire departments, but in planning Brownsville's network, Bruciak said Brownsville decided WiMAX was the right call because it would maximize the city's security and cost savings.

"We were very hesitant about adopting something that hasn't been proven," Bruciak said. The extra security is possible because WiMAX operates in licensed spectrum, which sold her, the city manager and other officials on the idea.

The faster speeds and mobile access will help police remotely access a mug-shot database and carry video from downtown security cameras. Bruciak said the network will be available for select other uses, like visitors to a stadium the city is building. The city may

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.