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Cheap Wireless Network Pays Off for Asheville, N.C.

Asheville, N.C., saves big money by switching to a $20,000 solution for its city-owned wireless network used by public safety.

Asheville, N.C., saved millions of dollars and also supported a local business last fall when the city’s IT department opted to build a city-owned wireless network to connect public safety buildings.

Asheville was using a fiber network as a condition of a cable franchise to connect 22 administrative buildings, fire stations and police substations, but the North Carolina Video Service Competition Act of 2006 gave the cable TV providers the power to negotiate statewide contacts, taking local government out of the plan. The new annual price for the city’s fiber service was $450,000.

This put the city in a tough spot, said Jonathan Feldman, Asheville’s IT services director. Asheville’s station alerting, which was previously connected by fiber, had resulted in a threefold improvement in cardiac emergency survival rates and a 20 percent improvement in structure fire response rates.

The city didn’t want to pay the new hefty fee for service, Feldman said, but the new system was saving lives and the city couldn’t give it up. That’s when the city found a $20,000 solution to a million dollar problem.

The $20,000 Network

When city leaders looked at the numbers, they knew they had to find another solution, Feldman said. “Why would we spend half a million dollars renting anything we can build ourselves for two million dollars?” Feldman asked.

The city already had a relationship with a local business called Skyrunner, a wireless ISP that had done several small jobs for the city in the past. When Asheville officials realized they could do the whole network for less than $20,000, they said goodbye to their old ISP and started installation with the new provider.

Using unlicensed 5 Ghz line-of-sight radios by Ubiquiti Networks, Skyrunner created a wireless, point-to-point network that covers a five-mile radius within the city. The network has been operational since last fall, and now that the network has made it through the spring, Feldman said it has proved to be reliable.

“We’ve survived torrential rain, 18 inches of snow, 40 to 50 miles-per-hour wind, and we’ve had exactly one weather-related outage — we put a radio too close to the roofline and it was buried in snow,” Feldman said.

Although the new network has been deemed a success, Feldman admitted that wireless connectivity isn’t perfect. “You want fiber where you can get fiber,” Feldman said. “We’re not getting the data rates we would like in some places.” Despite this, Feldman said the network works well overall and the city is happy with the price, which is basically zero now that the equipment and installation have been paid for.

Cost avoidance was one reason why Asheville received international recognition earlier this month from Government Management Information Sciences, an association of government IT leaders. The organization awarded Asheville its “Best Practice” award for displaying initiative and timeliness in building their new public safety network.

Advantages of Wireless

The wireless network’s cost might be the best part of the whole deal, Skyrunner vice president Art Mandler said. “It’s a network they control. These are connections they own that are robust,” he said.
The cost of upkeep is also cheaper than a fiber network, Mandler said. You don’t have to worry about trees falling on the equipment because the radios are above the tree line, whereas fiber sometimes can be severed for a multitude of reasons. If the equipment does need to be replaced because of lightning or something else, the radios are relatively inexpensive to switch out, he said.

Skyrunner trained the city’s IT staff on using the radios so the city would operate autonomously. And the staff already was knowledgeable, so the training only took an hour, Mandler said. “If they need help with something more complicated like radio frequencies or something, they can always contact us, but that hasn’t been necessary,” he said.

Both Feldman and Mandler expressed satisfaction with the relationship between the city and Skyrunner. And working with local businesses makes the Asheville City Council happy, Feldman said.

For cities interested in building a wireless point-to-point network for public safety, Mandler recommended looking closely at what a company has done before contracting them, getting references on its work and even getting hands-on experience with networks the company has built in order to test them.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated.

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.