Bowling Green launches public safety Wi-Fi

City's CIO says public access may come later

The city of Bowling Green, Ky., has launched a $1.2 million wireless communications system that relies mainly on Wi-Fi. The system links fire trucks to its data center and will be expanded to police and city inspectors in coming months.

While the system relies on outdoor mesh Wi-Fi with gear from Cisco Systems Inc., the city has decided to hold off on free public Wi-Fi service, partly because of concerns over how it will be paid for and because of problems that cities such as Chicago and San Francisco faced with providers in setting up municipal Wi-Fi systems, the city's CIO said in an interview today.

"Our priority today is with public safety and serving city functions, and public access is down the road," said Bowling Green CIO Lynn Hartley. "We've seen that other municipalities have added public access fairly successfully, but others have issues, such as problems with EarthLink [in San Francisco and Chicago, for instance.] We think we'll have public access at some point, but we'll have to partner with a company of some sort."

Hartley said he felt that Bowling Green had dodged a bullet by not starting its Wi-Fi rollout with a free public access service at first. "We've gone in the right direction," he said.

Currently, Bowling Green is using Panasonic Toughbook laptops in 12 fire trucks. The city will add laptops to about 50 police cruisers, and it has plans to provide wireless access via a laptop card to about 100 vehicles in all. Eventually, city inspectors and finance officials might carry laptops for on-scene interviews and inspections, Hartley said.

The $1.2 million cost includes data center upgrades and the cost of making installations on fiber-optic poles owned by a private utility company, he said.

Using wireless laptops, firefighters on moving fire trucks can access data such as street maps and records indicating whether buildings have hazardous materials much as they would if they were using a desktop in their headquarters, Hartley said. The Wi-Fi system includes security to prevent outside access, and the city is able to use fiber-optic pathways for part of the backhaul to the data centers.

In a related development, Cisco announced a set of enhancements today to its wireless access equipment and introduced 4.9-GHz radio interoperability between its 3200 wireless router and its model 1522 and the 1524 modular radios, said Morgan Wright, Cisco's global industry solution manager for public safety and homeland security. The 4.9-GHz band is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission for public safety purposes, while Wi-Fi is unlicensed and theoretically accessible by anyone.

Cisco also launched a Cisco Mobile Government initiative at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in New Orleans. The purpose of the Mobile Government initiative is to give greater focus to sales of mobile and wireless products to governments, said Joel Vincent, senior manager for the mobility marketing group at Cisco.

"The original model of Google and EarthLink of working toward municipal Wi-Fi clearly hasn't fulfilled what people expected," Vincent said in an interview. "What we do see driving the market is government, which provides public safety and related functions, he said. "Wi-Fi is not dead, but the emphasis should have been on delivering government services first."

Wright said Cisco's gear operates on the Internet Protocol, giving it interoperability with many systems. Meanwhile, Motorola Corp., the largest provider of public safety radios for decades, has moved to IP as well, but many communities are unable to give up expensive radios and systems that are not interoperable.

Hartley said Bowling Green decided to purchase model 1522 modular radios for vehicles that rely on 802.11 b/g and not the 4.9-GHz band because the equipment to access the licensed public safety band is more costly, and the Wi-Fi radios could be used for other purposes beyond public safety.

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