Metropolis unwired

1 November 2007

Local and global municipalities are starting to embrace municipal networks, but it goes beyond making technology and policy decisions.

There has been increasing interest in municipal networks in recent years, with municipalities both at home and abroad starting to implement such networks. However, municipalities have a number of considerations to bear in mind, beyond simple technology and policy decisions.

According to research firm Gartner*, municipalities should “take care on political decisions, identify all applications, make a technology choice and maintain realistic expectations when building a business plan for municipal wireless networks”.

The company also says that municipal networks using WiFi technology can provide much needed mobility to local government applications, which, in turn, can increase productivity and save money.

“Careful planning is essential to success. However, a business model for low-cost or free internet access for all citizens is going to be difficult to sustain over the medium and long term, so set expectations accordingly,” the analyst house advises.

Look toward owning your airwaves.
Further, says Gartner, the service goals and business models of a municipality do not match those of providers of fixed and mobile communications. If this were not the case, interest in alternative municipal networks would never have grown.

“Local government has assets it can exploit and the growing momentum behind municipal networks is starting to persuade established carriers to reply to cities` RFPs in the USA. In the UK, some city governments have negotiated the building of wireless LAN hot zones with operators that want to site picocells for 3G mobile networks on street furniture. Municipalities should keep an open mind about alternative solutions, including those from established carriers.”

The way forward

Gartner makes the following recommendations:

* Understand all the needs of applications on the network for the next three to five years. Not only take into consideration commercial services to citizens and businesses, but research the needs for access to public information and internal municipal government applications.

* Integrate internal applications into any service agreement. The commercial partner is likely to welcome a three-year contract to supply municipal applications over the network. Ensure that the service agreement does not exclude the municipality from running essential applications.

* In any negotiations with commercial service providers, make the most of your key assets: access rights to street furniture and, through them, access to your citizens. Emphasise access to services in city centres when discussing services in suburban or rural areas. In general, access to city areas will be more attractive as a business proposition than access to rural areas.

* Issue a request for proposal (RFP) and consider commercial partnerships with a variety of service providers: ISPs, competitive fixed-line carriers, mobile operators and possibly even search-engine businesses. Do not enter into a partnership with a service provider whose business model is to charge beyond the limits affordable to the citizens you are trying to provide access for.

* The municipality cannot guarantee the success of a commercial service. When citizens are required to pay, they will expect a predictable and reliable service. When the service is free, revenue (typically from advertising) may not be enough to maintain the network. Provisions should be made in any contract with a commercial partner that the municipality can continue to provide citizens and employees with broadband communications if the commercial partner fails or pulls out of the agreement. Remember, in three to five years, essential internal applications may rely on this network. Consider owning the network infrastructure while working with a partner for internet service provision, network operations and maintenance.

* Ensure that the network implementation is based on standards and that equipment has passed interoperability tests. This will affect the cost of replacement and network expansion. Run a trial service before committing to full network deployment.

* Look toward owning your airwaves. This will become increasingly important as wireless connectivity becomes a critical part of a growing list of internal government applications. Aggressively pursue licensed spectrum, lobby central government and the frequency regulation authorities. Such efforts are starting to make some progress, but there is a long way to go. Look for spectrum below 3.6GHz, preferably from 2.3GHz to 2.7GHz, in which better wireless propagation characteristics will reduce infrastructure costs while accommodating available standards-based products. Consider establishing a target of gaining access to licensed spectrum in time for the availability of low-cost WiMax semi-mobile networking in 2008 through 2010.

Source: What Local Governments Should Consider in Planning Municipal Wireless Networks – Ian Keene, 26 April 2006.