Municipal Wireless Goes Beyond Internet Access

By Eric Griffith

July 28, 2004

New deployments by mesh networking companies show that city-wide Wi-Fi networks can and will be used for more than just surfing the Web.

In the olden days of Wi-Fi -- say, 18 months ago -- wireless "clouds" deployed across an entire municipality were used for one thing only: Internet access. They've slowly migrated, however, to become the backbone of numerous communications networks for first responders in some areas. This week, two companies that specialize in self-configuring/self-healing mesh networks have announced a couple of new deployments that take another evolutionary step by helping collect and distribute data automatically in some unique areas.

Maitland, Fla.-based MeshNetworks' own MeshNetworks Enabled Architecture (MEA) mobile broadband is the power behind the Portsmouth Online Real Time Traveler (PORTAL) Information System in Portsmouth, England. The citywide network is there to provide real-time departure and arrival information for bus passengers, in an attempt to cut down on automobile traffic congestion and pollution.

MeshNetworks is calling it "Europe's first mesh-enabled municipality." PORTAL encompasses 36 bus stops and 9 kiosks in the city displaying the comings and goings of 300 buses at any one time on large LCD screens. The screen shows an expected bus arrival time -- no more waiting at the bus stand if you know you've got an hour to kill. Units on board each bus transmit data wirelessly to the city's Traffic Control Center.

In the announcement, John Domblides, Team Leader of Intelligent Transportation Systems for the Portsmouth City Council, said the mesh network provided "an innovative and cost-effective way of wirelessly communicating between all the elements of the PORTAL system." The system was installed by local system integrator NOW Wireless.

Back in the states, specifically the state of Texas, the city of Corpus Christi is in a test phase of using a mesh network from Tropos Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif., to automatically collect gas and water utility meter readings -- no more visits by a meter reader to the home.

"They're looking at this for cost savings and mobile work force effectiveness," says Bert Williams, vice president of marketing at Tropos.

The network is actually coming in two tiers. The meters will be equipped with sub-1GHz radios, since they don't have to transmit a lot of data, which will be collected by an automatic meter reading (AMR) data concentrator unit for a specific area. That concentrator will then upload data to the Wi-Fi-based Tropos mesh twice a day.

Initially the Wi-Fi cloud will cover 18.5 square miles of Corpus Christi (with the AMR systems only in two square miles). It will probably be another four weeks before that phase is complete. If everything is tested and found satisfactory, the city plans to build out the mesh to cover the entire 147 square miles by March of next year.

Besides the savings for the city-owned utility company, the data collected can now be viewed in real-time by customers. Williams says, "People will be able to get on the utility Web site and see what their usage is."

Like with most such mesh networks, the extra bandwidth available means other uses can quickly come into play. The city will likely eventually allow it to be used by public works and public safety agencies -- there are 315 vehicles that encompass the fire, police, and emergency medical departments that will likely use the wireless with virtual private network (VPN) authentication to get data while on the road. They even have plans to use GPS systems to track vehicles.

Tropos, MeshNetworks and others are making strides in taking towns to wireless. Tropos recently announced such unique installations as a wireless surveillance network to help the media cover the Scott Peterson trial in San Mateo, Calif. (where it already provides coverage for the police department), as well as working with NASA on the Mars exploration program's communication field trials and even simple Internet access to NASCAR fans at the Texas Motor Speedway. The latter two networks were, in fact, only temporary.

"We see that as another potential market," says Williams, "the event-based network."



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