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Reason Foundation

More Subtle Shifts in Municipal Broadband

Steven Titch
February 20, 2006, 8:32am

Intel consultant Esme Vos posts some interesting notes at Muniwireless.com from a roundtable she hosted Feb. 14 in Itaska, Ill., near Chicago. The event brought together 38 people, mostly municipal officials who were at some stage of deploying municipal wireless. From her summary, much of the discussion seemed to revolve on the ways of using municipal wireless to improve city operations – public safety, parking enforcement, automatic meter reading. Consumer broadband, while still on the table, seems to have been reduced to a secondary objective. City officials may be at last realizing that they are setting expectations too high when they position municipal wireless as an effective competitor for the commercial broadband services offered by the phone companies, cable companies and wireless companies. Although municipal RFPs currently emerging, most recently Suffolk County, N.Y., and Houston, still call for wide area 1 Mb/s coverage, as these RFPs make it through the comment and reply stage, it will not be surprising to see some of these consumer provisions scaled back in favor of internal operational objectives, such as reducing costs, extending "desktop" functions to the field and creating wireless portals for Web-based transactions with the city (auto registration, tax payments, license and permit application). Although Vos can't resist taking a shot or two at the incumbents, her report dispels the common notion that telcos and cable obstructionism is the only thing standing between a city IT department and a successful municipal broadband system. When it comes to making these projects work, there's a lot more on the minds of municipal officials. Not surprisingly, wireless network security led the list of topics attendees wanted to know about. Among the other challenges: Coming up with a consistent approach with other cities in a county Departmental coordination Finding the right technology Clarity in the legal and regulatory framework in deploying wired and wireless networks Funding When municipal wireless is presented in the context of city IT, goals are much easier to manage, measure and control than competitive gauges like market share and revenues, where municipal systems routinely fall short when they try to compete for consumers. Instead, low-priced, low-speed, no-frills wireless broadband access can be positioned as a side benefit of city IT upgrades, not a full-blown alternative to 3G wireless, DSL or cable modems. If the effort comes up short, the city can cover itself by pointing to IT-derived efficiencies and argue that commercial broadband was never the intent in the first place.


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