Go, Cleveland, Go!

By Gerry Blackwell

January 27, 2004

The path to the Superbowl may not go through Cleveland this year, but citizens can boast about a municipal Internet project that is the most aggressive and ambitious in the nation.

More than a few North American municipalities are experimenting with or contemplating providing wireless Internet access as a utility alongside electricity and water--or as a free service. None, however, has been as aggressive or ambitious as Cleveland, Ohio.

The OneCleveland project, led by Case Western Reserve University and officially launched last October, is a massive undertaking of which the current free-access wireless network, with its over 1,400 access points, is just a small part.

The organization also manages 250 miles of fiber valued at $1 million. The fiber was donated to the organization by the university and by dark fiber network provider City Signal Communications Inc.

Eight charter members and 33 subscriber members so far are hooked into the fiber net for broadband--and in some cases, very high-speed--network services. Ultimately, OneCleveland expects to have 104 members with just over 1,000 individual "assets" -- buildings and complexes connected to the net.

Besides Case Western, charter members include public broadcaster ideastream, the City of Cleveland, Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, and the Cleveland Municipal School District.

"The wireless component is one of the core selling points of the project," says Lev Gonick, chief information officer (CIO) at Case Western, and president of the OneCleveland board.

"As we open this up, we'll have unprecedented bandwidth -- a gigabit [per second] or more. We figure, why not from the very beginning include this free municipal bicycle lane as it were? In the larger scheme of things, the cost is nothing."

The idea is that as they interconnect their assets to the wired network, members will, as Gonick puts it, "consider illuminating the areas around their facilities with free public access wireless."

He admits that not every member has bought into this concept yet. Convincing some of the project's institutional partners remains "one of the more challenging" aspects of the project, Gonick says.

Still, OneCleveland already has about 2 percent of the city's approximately 40 square miles covered. It ultimately hopes to have more like 10 percent covered, or about 10 contiguous miles of city core in a swath that will fill in and connect three existing wireless "clouds of connectivity."

One of the clouds covers from the shore of Lake Erie through the city center, and includes the transport terminus and city hall. The mid-town Cleveland cloud takes in Playhouse Square and Cleveland State University. The third cloud is the University Circle area, which includes Case Western's campus and nearby museums and other cultural and institutional facilities.

"Our goal is to support up to ten contiguous miles," Gonick says, "and that's very doable because between University Circle and the lakefront there is about 116 city blocks."

The current 1,400 access points will, according to the most conservative estimate included in the OneCleveland business plan, grow to 2,000. "But if we get some momentum, it could be double that number," Gonick says. "And we're well on our way [to 2,000] even before bringing all eight charter members on stream."

The bulk of the access points in place now are Aironet 1200 series products from Cisco Systems. However, most of the members currently deploying access points have now switched to square-yard-sized access point arrays from Vivato.

The two universities account for the bulk of the APs, but both have city campuses and their coverage takes in adjacent commercial areas as well, lighting up coffee shops, restaurants and other retail.

When municipal and non-profit groups start offering wireless access, one can't help wondering about the reaction of for-profit Wi-Fi hotspot providers. Gonick admits the project is "challenging the paradigm" of the nascent hotspot industry. But he insists there has been "no great hue and cry" from that sector.

This is mainly because OneCleveland communicated its intentions well from the start and made clear commitments to the community. In some cases, coffee shops and restaurants will fall within one of the OneCleveland wireless clouds, but the project will not extend its coverage beyond areas around members' facilities.

In the meantime, Gonick notes dryly, "the coffee shops that are [in our coverage areas] have very much been enjoying the free access."

OneCleveland's advice to members is to set up their hotspots and hot zones as separate virtual local area networks (VLANs), interconnected to their Ethernet infrastructure, but with a separate set of IP addresses, and direct access only to the public Internet.

Users don't require authentication when they roam into one of the OneCleveland hot zones. If an employee of one of the member organizations needs access to his organization's core network from a OneCleveland WLAN, he can use virtual private network (VPN) technology to do it securely.

The free Wi-Fi access will be -- already is-- great for Clevelanders, but what's the objective of the OneCleveland project in all this?

One overarching goal is to provide members with greater bandwidth at less cost, but the organization's mandate goes much further. It will also foster applications in five areas: bridging the digital divide, health care, arts and culture, scientific research and e-government.

"Those are the five core areas, which we hope will represent the digital city of the future," Gonick says. "And we hope OneCleveland is the live lab for developing an understanding of the digital city."

The organization is currently in the process of winnowing a list of proposed applications down to 50, 10 in each area. It will put its weight and resources behind those 50. "Now that the network is designed and architected and it's rolling out, this is our year for application development," Gonick says.

There have already been a few pilot projects. The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Louvre museum in Paris, France collaborated on research that also involved scientists from Case Western's ceramic engineering department.

"They were able to do research together that without the technology would have required them to be in the same room together," Gonick says.

The city's downtown Christmas season light festival, Luminosity, this year included a display that involved projecting giant digital images on to downtown buildings. It was also enabled by the OneCleveland broadband technology.

Wireless is not just a nice-to-have add-on to the main OneCleveland show. There will be wireless-specific projects, including one involving museums and a renowned local tapestry artist that will turn a downtown park into an open air virtual museum this summer.

Gonick characterizes the project, which has not been publicized yet, as "the first ever wireless tapestry -- a magic carpet ride meets a time machine." Visitors will be handed wireless- and GPS-enabled handheld devices that will provide an "immersive" multimedia experience as they walk from exhibit to exhibit around the park.

The OneCleveland project has already sparked interest in other communities as far away as the Netherlands and Australia -- and in plenty of communities across the U.S. as well. Some of those are more grass-roots than OneCleveland, Gonick notes. While he doesn't say it in so many words, it's clear Gonick believes the Cleveland model has a better chance of making a real impact.

"The prospect of being able to leverage those community assets [from OneCleveland members] is key," he says. "When we get [the city's] 122 [public] schools on stream, we'll be hitting a big part of that 40 square miles [with wireless coverage]. I'm not aware of any comparable integrated municipal strategy anywhere else."

We're not aware of one either. Go, Cleveland, go!

Reprinted from ISP Planet.

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