Redefining municipal wireless

Municipal wireless was declared dead at the Wireless Communications Association’s recent symposium in San Jose, but the picture that emerged from three days of discussion, debate and presentations at the European Wireless and Digital Cities Congress in Barcelona this week was more comprehensive and nuanced. And optimistic.

The difference lies how you define municipal wireless. Older, more familiar models are certainly dead. No one expects a private company to invest in building a city-wide WiFi network to provide public Internet access, whether free or for a price. Cities are moving away from building general purpose wireless broadband systems, of any sort, and are increasingly cautious even when considering specialized networks, such as those dedicated to public safety applications.

Big ticket municipally funded wireless infrastructure projects in the developed world are dead for all practical purposes. It’s a big planet, and if you look hard enough you can probably find an exception or two. More than that in the developing world, where needs, resources and governing assumptions are different. But cities in the U.S. and Europe won’t be spending their own money to build ubiquitous wireless broadband pipes. Private capital won’t be available, either.

National governments might still fund some projects, particularly specialized ones focused on public safety and security or development projects for rural or other underdeveloped locales. Gradually though, even that kind of funding will no longer be allocated to basic broadband infrastructure.

Going forward, the emphasis will be on developing, deploying and supporting network-agnostic applications. In some cases applications will be initially developed to ride on a particular network, because that’s the network that happens to be available. Even then, extending applications to other systems will just be a matter of creating interfaces. Municipal wireless applications will not be captive to a given technology or network operator.

Bedforshire Police, in Britain, is giving Blackberries to its police officers, so they can run specialized applications such as crime and identity database access or computerized dispatch in the field. About half of the impressive list of applications are browser based and could be accessed by just about any recent mobile device. The other half make use of the Blackberry operating system and network protocols, but could be adapted for use on other devices or networks with appropriate front end software.

In the U.S., Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, in Oregon, is using several overlapping networks, both commercial and in-house legacy systems, to tie field units into a comprehensive information system. Having multiple layers allows them to cover a very large geographical area with redundant access, and prevents a single network operator or equipment vendor from monopolizing their budget. The applications are all network-agnostic, the field equipment is cheap and commercially available, and the relatively low cost of switching wireless broadband providers keeps the market competitive.

Municipalities and other local agencies will still be buying public safety radio systems, and those systems will provide an increasing level of digital bandwidth. Cities will also fill in network gaps where necessary or saturate relatively small areas that have a critical (and budgeted) need. But those systems will be one element in a diversified network strategy and, except for the most critical and specialized applications, will be dumb pipes. Those systems will not be bespoke, vertically integrated packages that quickly turn into legacy technology.

The creativity and funding will be focused on building the applications, generating and managing the data that feeds those applications, and developing management and operational strategies that maximize the benefit of this abundance of information. Right now, much of that work is being done on a city by city basis, but the next step – and the next opportunity – will be to create robust, high level applications that can be carried via any standard network protocol and accessed by any mobile device.

Going forward, municipal wireless will be vibrant and alive, and will mean something very different from the dead and dying concepts of the past five years. The truly municipal elements will be applications and data. The wireless part, indeed pipes of any sort, will be a commodity, to be purchased as a service for the most part and only built in limited circumstances for specific needs.