Municipal wireless is still in the embryonic stages of development, but the trend is positioned to explode in the UK and the US over the next five years as local governments and internet service providers recognize the economic and community benefits these networks offer. Given this, spend in the US and UK is expected to grow from $900 million in 2007 to $6.4 billion in 2012.
Faced with strained budget resources, waning workforces, demand for more personalized constituents service and greater threats to public safety, local governments are looking for new ways to increase efficiency while also providing more and better services. An innovative solution to this challenge is ‘municipal’ wireless networks. By deploying wireless networks from street lights and lamp posts around a community, local governments provide citizens, businesses and public employees with low-cost – or even free – ubiquitous internet connectivity while outdoors.
Municipal wireless target multiple community pains
The rapid adoption of wireless-enabled end-user devices, coupled with people’s growing desire to work and communicate while mobile, have contributed to the recent growth in interest in municipal wireless networks. However, local governments are developing these networks to address a number of critical challenges.
Different cities have different goals for their municipal wireless deployments. While some cities are looking to expand internet access to disadvantaged citizens, others want to provide government workers with connectivity to internal systems while in the field. Other cities are driven to attract new businesses to their communities.
No ‘one size fits all’ business model for municipal wireless
Just as cities have varied objectives for their municipal wireless networks, the operational strategies, or business models, developed to support these networks are also diverse. Early deployments – such as the network in Corpus Christi, Texas – were built by local governments for municipal ownership. Today, more communities – such as Portland, Oregon – are partnering with service providers, allowing a vendor to maintain and own the network, while utilizing city-provided assets such as street lights and traffic signals to mount equipment.
A public-private partnership business model is attractive to both local governments and service providers because it allows each to focus on its core competencies – serving constituents and providing internet service. The most successful dynamics go one step further, however, and make the local government the ‘anchor tenant’ on the network. As an anchor tenant to a municipal wireless network, the local government agrees to a certain predetermined level of usage. This commitment not only guarantees the service provider a revenue stream, it provides the government with leverage to guide the development of the network.
Applications will shape future of municipal wireless
About 400 cities in the US and UK have deployed or are currently building municipal wireless networks. The direction this trend will follow depends on a number of factors, including the applications cities choose to run on the networks.
These networks will only be successful if citizens and government employees use them, and that usage will be driven by the applications that reside on the networks. For example, a number of cities have deployed video surveillance solutions on their municipal wireless networks so that public safety agencies can monitor activity via streaming images from wireless cameras that are placed strategically in targeted areas of a community.
Cities considering municipal wireless networks are advised to look for the ‘killer app’ that will bring users to the network and create a new channel for citizens and workers to communicate, share information and conduct business. The killer app may be video surveillance or automatic meter reading or something we haven’t considered yet. But once identified, it will push municipal wireless over the tipping point.