Oklahoma City celebrates Wi-Fi for city services

$5 million system is used by police and fire departments and will figure in flood response, severe weather prediction

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Oklahoma City today will celebrate the success of its city-owned and -operated municipal Wi-Fi mesh network, a $5 million taxpayer-funded project that took more than two years to build and that provides 150 applications used by police, firefighters and other city workers.

Although the system does not provide free or low-cost Wi-Fi to the public, that concept had been envisioned and is still in the realm of possibility, said Mark Meier, IT director for the city, in a recent interview.

"Free Wi-Fi is still an interest of ours," Meier said, recognizing that the idea has failed repeatedly in many large cities in the U.S., including Oklahama City. EarthLink Inc. backed out of a project there last year, as it has done in some other cities, including Philadelphia. EarthLink won a city request for proposals to provide home-based Wi-Fi services, but backed out before anything was formalized, Meier said.

Oklahoma City officials, representing more than 529,000 residents, have made a conscious decision to review public access on a semiannual basis, although the city's primary mission with the network would not be to provide Internet access to all of the World Wide Web. "We may allow access to government Web sites and city schools, entertainment, mapping services, public transit and social services," Meier said.

The decision on how to move forward with public access is not principally Meier's to make. However, he has overseen a massive buildup of municipal services in recent years, including the wireless network, which relies on 1,200 fixed Wi-Fi nodes and 850 mobile Wi-Fi nodes (in police cars and fire trucks) provided by Tropos Networks Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Today's celebration is designed to publicly announce the success of that relatively inexpensive infrastructure, which supports the city's critical communications for police and fire and creates a number of efficiencies for inspectors. By using mobile nodes in vehicles, the city has greatly reduced the number of fixed nodes it needs to install on poles and buildings for a 555-square mile network at a great cost savings, Meier said.

He also said that the most recent innovation that has taken place is that the Wi-Fi network is now managed as part of the city's IT infrastructure, not separately, which means that applications available over wired local area networks can run reliably wirelessly. "When we first started the process, it was deemed a very big risk" technologically, to manage Wi-Fi as one with the rest of the network, he said.

Among the applications now being used are the ability to view video of roads and high-risk crime locations from 300 cameras. Video images can be routed to police officers in squad cars or to firefighters responding to fires, and criminal arrest records and building plans can be routed to emergency responders. In addition, building inspection results can be made available on the same day of an inspection, saving days over the older system.

Coming this month, the city will be able to link its water utilities with a GPS system, meaning emergency workers can track what houses to evacuate during a flood. "The coolness of this is amazing," Meier said.

Soon, the National Weather Service is planning to put weather stations at dozens of locations to accurately measure heat spikes, information that is useful in the prediction of tornadoes and other storms. That data will be routed over the high-speed Wi-Fi network, Meier said.

He added that building the network had moments filled with headaches, although he praised Tropos. The biggest problem was finding client hardware that would support high-speed wireless connections for video and other applications. Today, about 1,500 workers are successfully equipped with about 1,200 Panasonic Toughbook laptops.

Meier also predicted that city workers will eventually move to handhelds operating over Wi-Fi, including devices like the iPhone. The only thing holding him back from using the iPhone today, he said, is that Apple Inc. is "too restrictive" in the way city-built applications would be distributed to iPhone devices, at least as far as what Apple has announced for a 2.0 version coming later this month.

As Wi-Fi capable handhelds proliferate, there will be a broad demand for municipal Wi-Fi systems providing free or low-cost Wi-Fi access to the public, said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com, a site devoted to municipal Wi-Fi topics.

In a recent e-mail interview, Vos said the emerging model for municipalities where free Wi-Fi has failed is similar to what Oklahoma City is celebrating, namely, a system built by a city for municipal use with the potential to expand to free or low-cost public use.

Meier said he never felt that having EarthLink or another provider build a network and offer free services supported by advertising would work. "I don't mean to appear arrogant, but I've felt that was a failed business model from the get-go," he said. By comparison, Oklahoma City elected officials and others had foresight in recognizing that Wi-Fi could support city services instead of other more expensive radio technologies, he said.

"We're a relatively poor city and we've done this as inexpensively as possible, and now we have seen a backlog of requests for applications," Meier said.

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