Wi-Fi Proposed to Promote Muskogee, Oklahoma

Ponca City officials say their public Wi-Fi network saves residents about $3.9 million a year that can be spent locally, and Muskogee hopes to follow their lead.

by D.E. Smoot, McClatchy News Service / December 3, 2013

Building a public Wi-Fi network is part of a vision that will present Muskogee, Oklahoma, as "a progressive city that is open for business."

The proposal, which is expected to become a reality during the next 12 to 48 months, sprang from the Action in Muskogee initiative. Citywide Wi-Fi access is seen as a way to distinguish Muskogee from other cities in the field of economic development.

"Our hope is that the public Wi-Fi initiative will distinguish us from other cities when it comes to attracting economic development, all the way from retail to industrial," Interim City Manager Roy Tucker said. It "will most certainly increase the quality of life and educational opportunities of our citizens."

The expansion of municipal wireless networks has been driven by a number of other factors. Those include efforts to step up public safety, revitalize economic development, improve government efficiency, and bridge the digital divide across the socio-economic spectrum.

AIM organizers identified other motivating factors for including public Wi-Fi as one of its signature projects. Those factors include educational excellence, community pride, health and wellness, and making Muskogee a great place to live and visit.

Getting from here to there will take time because of the technical nature of the project. But AIM's spokeswoman Kimbra Scott said the players are hard at work to make the signature project a reality.

"A great deal of work is being done to identify current, publicly accessible hot spots, the geographic areas of greatest Wi-Fi availability need for residents, and the most cost-effective and technically feasible solutions," Scott said. "We need to acknowledge that this is a bit different because it's a newly recognized need with no ... single entity ... whose mission it is to bring it to fruition."

Scott said that although the city of Muskogee will be the driving force behind the project, the final product will be the fruits of a "collaboration with other stakeholders, like the schools and local businesses."

Tucker said officials are looking at Ponca City as a model for the proposed public Wi-Fi network in Muskogee. The north-central Oklahoma community of about 25,000 people constructed an award-winning wireless mesh that provides a "private network for employees and a free network for the public."

Ponca City's public Wi-Fi network was made available after the municipality constructed an outdoor wireless network to provide field communications to support the provision of city services. After testing the network, officials found "it was robust enough" to handle both the municipality's needs and access for residents.

Ponca City Assistant City Manager Tana McKinley described the Wi-Fi network as "a project that progressed over many years." It also is one that "has been really well received by our residents."

According to a fact sheet provided by McKinley, the development of Ponca City's public Wi-Fi network began in 1997. The project began with the installation of five miles of fiber-optic cable, which was laid to connect City Hall with outlying municipal buildings.

Another five miles of fiber-optic lines was installed two years later, and that network continued to grow each year. In 2008, Ponca City officials installed a wireless mesh -- a system that extends the transmission distance of radio signals -- that provides the base for its Wi-Fi network.

Ponca City's fiber-optic network now consists of more than 350 miles of cable that connects all municipal locations plus area "schools, hospitals, physicians, industries, businesses, casinos and most neighborhoods."

Ponca City officials say the public Wi-Fi network saves residents about $3.9 million a year that can be used "to spend or invest" locally instead of paying Internet connection fees. They also credit the network for increased productivity and improved efficiency within city government.

Tucker said proponents of a public Wi-Fi network in Muskogee are aware of Ponca City's wireless infrastructure. But the fiber-optic backbone used there appears to be out of reach in Muskogee because of costs, he said.

"We were aware that Ponca had this type of network, but we do not have the funding to create our system in the same manner," Tucker said. "Instead, the concept that has been discussed would be to utilize existing hot spots of Wi-Fi through the city and connect and expand those."

Tucker said inquiries have been made about the possibility of using the network that monitors city water meters for public Wi-Fi, but there has been no definitive response. There may be other infrastructural components in place that can be used, but Tucker said nothing has "been identified in any concrete manner."

When AIM organizers rolled out the initiative's signature projects in November, the cost of getting public Wi-Fi up and running was unknown. McKinley said ascertaining the total costs of Ponca City's network would be hard to calculate because the system "evolved from several projects that progressed over the years."

The fact sheet provided by McKinley, however, states that the network is subsidized by businesses. Ponca City sells broadband Internet access "to most businesses and industries in order to generate revenue to pay for its wireless mesh." Tucker said discussions in Muskogee have not progressed that far.

Scott said Muskogee's public Wi-Fi network will be built using "the most cost-effective and technically feasible solutions." Although the cost of the project is unknown now, Tucker said there has been some discussion about funding.

"In the capital improvement program tax renewal, which the council will begin considering in late January (or) early February, councilors will determine whether to include a funding element for the public Wi-Fi in the 0.18 percent sales tax renewal," he said, noting that will be an issue to be decided by voters. "Other funding sources are still being investigated."

(c) 2013 The Muskogee Phoenix (Muskogee, Okla.)

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