Just like the herd knows when it’s time to look for greener pastures, forward-thinking city administrators are quietly beginning the migration from office to access points. Municipal wireless (Wi-Fi), once a utopian vision of providing free or low-cost Internet service to entire cities, has not delivered on the dream. Instead, the vision is growing a new backbone through the development of Wi-Fi capabilities that can increase productivity and decrease costs.

Value-added vision

Municipal governments in cities such as Chicago and San Francisco have uploaded capital into failed initiatives designed for the primary purpose of linking consumers. Those projects died on the vine largely due to weak demand, incomplete interfacing and the expense of building out quality coverage.

“There’s been a lot of negative press about Wi-Fi and the wrong business models, and unfortunately, we’ve seen good networks not complete. It’s really a shame because, with the right business model, municipal Wi-Fi networks are great opportunities for cities to not only revolutionize how they approach operations like traffic management and emergency response, but it’s also a great community opportunity for ubiquitous broadband outside—you can be at the beach, at the mall, at the coffee shop,” said Lucie Poulicakos, vice president, operations and engineering at Mountain View, Calif.-based Wi-Fi network provider MetroFi Inc.

It leads most analysts and industry experts to believe future business models should be built around the more practical use, such as everyday municipal services. According to Chris Kaiser, local government representative with Johnson Controls Inc., the success of future municipal Wi-Fi networks will be founded on the applications based on them.

“If you can give discounted or free Wi-Fi to your citizens, that’s just an added benefit, but it’s not the main driver. You have to find cost-saving procedures and cost-saving applications to justify it. I think when you do the cost justification of these networks, they’re very cost-effective,” Kaiser said.

Wireless applications for critical public safety communications, automated utility meter reading and parking meter management, traffic signal operation, property inspections, surveillance, as well as Wi-Fi-enabled building management functions, such as energy-efficient heating, ventilating, air conditioning and lighting, are making cost justification very compelling and are creating several business opportunities for electrical contractors.

Despite several high-profile failures, research shows overall demand for municipal Wi-Fi is on the rise. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm In-Stat reports that worldwide deployments for municipal wireless networks for public Internet access will continue at a rapid pace. In “The Broadband Alternative Takes Hold” report, the company projects the total worldwide market to reach 1,500 by the end of 2010. Though popular perception holds that Europe is the Wi-Fi world leader, the report surprisingly concludes that the United States will continue to be the largest market for muni-wireless networks.

Regardless of which set of applications spurs deployment decisions, one thing is certain.

“It’s a great opportunity for electrical contractors to get involved in an emerging market,” Poulicakos said.

The argument for mesh

Most municipal Wi-Fi networks use mesh technology that requires a varying number of outdoor access points—sometimes referred to as “nodes”—per square mile. The devices typically are mounted on street light poles and share the same power source as the poles’ photocells. Each of these access points is equipped with antennas capable of transferring data using radio bandwidths at 2.4, 4.9 and 5.8 GHz frequencies and standard wireless 802.11 protocols.

A mesh network provides point-to-point communication, allowing the access points to use each other as repeaters. When a computer sends a signal to the nearest access point, the signal is uploaded to a local gateway where it is bounced to a broadband aggregation point on a tall structure, which houses fiber optic cable and/or a microwave. The hub-like aggregation point links the signal to a network interconnect facility, which is hard-wired to the Internet.

Mesh currently is the most common wireless protocol. One of its strongest advantages—the access points—also creates one of its biggest problems. If a pole goes down, the signal-sending node can instantly reroute its signal to a nearby access point. Drawbacks include large-scale power outages and the expense associated with the number of nodes needed to coverage large geographic areas.

An alternative gaining a lot of ground currently is high-speed broadband cellular—a multipoint-to-multipoint system—which doesn’t require any access points beyond the cell towers but is more susceptible to security breaches and communication congestion. For instance, in Concord, Calif., the methods are teamed.

“We’re actually deploying both technologies to our police vehicles, so if one system has an issue, we can still communicate,” said Ron Puccinelli, Concord IT director.

Poulicakos added that, unlike cellular networks, a city could freeze access in an emergency situation.

“We also have the ability to shut down everybody else and give unfettered access to the city directly. It’s what another provider did in Minneapolis with the bridge collapse last year,” Poulicakos said.

A tale of two cities

Concord was among the first in a handful of California cities to deploy free Internet access to municipal employees, residents, businesses and visitors. Owned and operated by MetroFi, city leaders and network officials took a slow, methodical approach to construction.

“We did a six-month pilot in our downtown to work the kinks out, then rolled it out over the next six months for the first two-thirds of the city,” said Puccinelli, who reported last March that nearly 450 nodes had been deployed over 13 square miles. “We did a pretty rigorous financial analysis before launching, and when we get to full deployment, we’ll be able to pull approximately $180,000 per year out of the city’s operating budget. A large chunk of that will come by transferring cell phones over to the system’s voice over Internet protocol over Wi-Fi.”

Although the city of 130,000 doesn’t use Wi-Fi for any utility information collection—those services are private—there are real-time applications for neighborhood and building inspectors, parks and recreation and public works staff members, and public safety officials.

“[The] previous system wouldn’t give officers in the car mugshots and had a limited subset of deliverable information,” Puccinelli said. “This system has sufficient bandwidth, so it will be literally like they’re sitting at their desks.”

In Cumberland, Md., a small city of 24,000 residents, energy-efficiency enhancements through HVAC system upgrades, infrastructure upgrades and automated meter reading technology (AMR) drove the installation of an expanded wireless system.

A performance contact between Cumberland and Johnson Controls converted its municipal buildings’ pneumatic systems to the Metasys building management system with Web-based digital control. The systems provide zoned climate control and wireless Internet capability for secure remote monitoring and control.

Project leaders also determined implementation of a sophisticated AMR could increase net financial return and help justify the installation of the more powerful Wi-Fi system. Cumberland already had a high-level, microwave-based, point-to-point wireless system connecting schools and government facilities.

“We tapped into that as a backhaul feature for the project and brought that large network down to a street level,” Kaiser said.

“What began as a conventional HVAC and lighting upgrade mushroomed into a bigger project with much greater savings and the side benefit of a city-wide Wi-Fi network,” said Jeff Repp, Cumberland city administrator.

Johnson Controls operated as the comprehensive project’s general contractor, hiring several electrical contractors to remove pneumatic lines, pull new wire for the control system, provide connections to the building management system, perform interior lighting upgrades and retrofits, mount nodes, and retrofit traffic lights with LEDs.

“Cumberland experienced significant savings from our more traditional work and could save up to 20 to 30 percent from previous utility consumption,” Kaiser said. And Repp indicated the city could eventually lease the system to private Internet providers, which could generate additional revenue.

Ramping up for Wi-Fi

According to Poulicakos, since the cost of building a municipal network to support public safety and other municipal applications typically is expensive, city leaders now are focusing on how the applications that leverage these networks can either trim other expenses in their budgets or increase public safety in order to fund these projects.

There are some unique aspects to municipal wireless installation projects. Concord’s Puccinelli said distinguishing whether the street light poles are high voltage or low voltage is critical to powering access points.

“Some use a bank switching system, meaning lights are controlled by one sensor, so there’s no power to plug into on the streetlights themselves. All of ours happened to be individually controlled, so there’s continuous power to the poles,” Puccinelli said.

Being tapped for municipal Wi-Fi projects can lead to an expansive relationship with a network provider, said MetroFi’s Poulicakos.

“When we have to build broadband aggregation points on rooftops, we have to run conduit and pull power with different types of cabling. If the contractor we’re working with for the street-based access point deployment has the ability to support us with rooftops as well, we’ll likely use them on both aspects of the project. We like to do business with as few qualified contractors as possible,” Poulicakos said.

The typical equipment needed for wireless is already in most toolboxes, including hand tools, wrenches, screwdrivers, handheld GPS units, power meters and a fleet of vehicles that includes bucket trucks. Storage facilities are preferred for housing access points, for the initial deployment and also for spares.

As with all emerging technologies, the biggest commitment an electrical contractor must make is keeping up with where it is headed. Many of the applications require pretty straightforward electrical work, but it’s good to see the big picture.

“If you understand the technology, how it works and how it’s benefiting the customer, you can train people to identify opportunities in the marketplace and help them grow the business,” Kaiser said. “The work is there. We have trouble finding qualified contractors to help with these projects because there aren’t many players out there.”

Finally, Wi-Fi applications continue to evolve. Cities that invest the time to select the right business model, the right partner to design and deploy a network, and the right application providers will benefit from lower costs, higher productivity, and greater worker efficiency. Savvy contractors shouldn’t miss out.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.