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Corpus Christi Seeks Wi-Fi Partners

Corpus Christi, Texas, sees Wi-Fi not only as the technology to improve its own government operations, but also as a means for businesses and citizens to connect in new and innovative ways.

Corpus Christi, Texas, sees Wi-Fi not only as the technology to improve its own government operations, but also as a means for businesses and citizens to connect in new and innovative ways. That doesn't mean that the city has ever considered becoming a public ISP, either directly or indirectly. Nonetheless, the city views its assets as a resource to help bring wireless access to the general public -- assets that include a fiber network connecting all its buildings and traffic signals that can serve as the backhaul for a Wi-Fi network.

"Our goal was not to provide service down to the individual customer," explained city manager George "Skip" Noe. "That we feel would be better done by the private sector. So the question for us is how to leverage the assets that currently exist predominately for city use, but in a way that also achieves maximum benefit for the entire community."

The city has already installed Wi-Fi throughout 24 square miles of the city where the average density of the coverage is now 12 to16 access devices per square mile. And in the next two years, it expects to blanket the whole city -- 147 square miles -- using WiMax (802.16) technology from Alvarion in order to bring backhaul service to remote areas not currently served by the fiber network.
George "Skip" Noe, Corpus Christi City Manager

The primary purpose of building this network, all funded by the city, is to bring Wi-Fi connectivity to government operations. The actual network has been procured from Pronto Networks and it deploys a multi-layered security model including device encrypting, secure sign-ons through software provided by Pronto, as well as VPN, Netilla, Cisco firewall and VLAN separation between communications links -- enough security in the city's view to allow it to be used for public safety applications. And also secure enough to extend it for direct access by citizens, but to do they want partners.

However, rather than the usual approach of selecting one, or even a handful of partners, the city wants as much involvement as possible from other governmental agencies as well as from nonprofit and private institutions. The more partners on board, the better as far as Noe is concerned. "In many ways, I think we are breaking new ground in terms of how we are approaching this," he explained.

Noe's logic makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Noe doesn't think there is a business model yet for citywide Wi-Fi networks that has proven itself over time. Additionally, he believes that limiting partnerships to specific companies at this stage would end up simply creating hard winners and losers.

"At this point, I personally think there is benefit in bringing lots of different points of view to the table," he added. "If you lock into just one world view, such as the view held by a Telco, for instance, I think you might miss out on some of the dynamic creativity that can spring from this new way of connecting things. Potentially, you could miss out on developments that might occur with the synergy of multiple points of view if you don't keep this thing as open ended as possible."

Call for Participation
Following this general strategy, the city is now seeking relationships with entities that can undertake the tasks that it is not interested in or able to perform, such things as marketing, pricing and revenue generation. Additionally, partners could undertake aspects of network maintenance, system upgrades, Help Desk operation, service provision, contract management with wireless service providers, the offer of wireless services and other similar activities.

The city has published what it calls "guiding principles" for developing these relationships with vendors and others. These emphasize:

- Equity and a level playing field. It is both the intent and the obligation of the city to play no favorites and to guarantee a level playing field to all possible partners. Equally important, the city intends to deploy services in a way that safeguards social equity and makes modern services available to all citizens.

- In order to become a partner with the city in the collaborative broadband network, a company or organization should be prepared to bring an asset to the collaboration. This asset may be financial, technological or people-based. Examples include pole mounting rights, technological know-how for system enhancement and migration, fiber for backhaul and marketing savvy.

- Attitude is everything in a partnership. The way that a potential partner approaches the joint effort well defines the success of the endeavor, and the city intends to create partnerships with entities which approach the partnership with a positive, "can do" attitude.

Shift In Thinking
These guiding principles hearken back to the earlier days of the Internet when talk was of a new digital economy. "People more or less have the win-lose scenario hard-wired into their brains and so you have companies that want to be the winners," suggested Dr. Costis Toregas, president emeritus of PTI and a consultant to Corpus Christi's Wi-Fi initiative. "We need a new syntax or vocabulary of engagement that goes beyond the win-lose scenario of past commerce. The ecosystem of Wi-Fi actually destroys the win-lose argument because you can have many companies engaged, all of whom depend on each other's success to succeed and all who can win.

"Without a Wi-Fi cloud up there, of course, nothing happens," Toregas added. "But once there is a cloud across cities, you are going to find that business models begin to shift. And we think that once you have a cloud there, what's going to happen underneath it is going to be a whole variety of services and products, including new companies with products we have yet to imagine."

Noe shares this general view. "I was concerned that if we truly wanted to derive the maximum economic benefit from this infrastructure, you need to make sure that all the different points are out there and its not just a Telco point of view, a cable point of view, or an ISP point of view. The possibilities are truly dynamic and we can take advantage of all the potential users to benefit our community."

Driven by Applications
At the same time, Noe realizes that it is the benefits offered by specific applications that bring value to any Wi-Fi proposition. As far as harnessing Wi-Fi to improve city government operations, they have undertaken a robust program of applications development. This involves several "Proof of Concept" projects in association with Intel's Digital Communities program with partners that include Blackboard, Dell, IBM, Intel, Northrop Grumman, PTI, and SAP.

The services currently under development in pilot stages include automated electricity and gas meter reading, streaming video and mug shot sharing in mobile public safety vehicles, automated personal location, wireless connectivity for building inspectors, school system communication enhancement between students, parents and teachers, and a volunteer health care database which emergency responders and medical personnel could access in emergencies to discover vital patient information before administering treatment.

While these projects are progressing, Noe believes that pursuing partnerships is now also a priority for the city. "For anyone interested in working with us, we want to hear how what we are doing might fit into their business model," Noe said. "And we want to know what they can bring to bear to make this system work better. Then we will sit down and come up with a business model that we hope works for everybody. That way we can create more opportunity for business and the community as a whole."

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