As more cities and towns move toward deploying municipal Wi-Fi networks, a new report from muni wireless expert Craig Settles sheds some light on best practices, both for vendors looking to cash in and for government officials looking for someone to pay.
The 40-page report, “Government Workforce Automation in a Muni Wireless World,” was released in February and includes what Settles calls “a road map to sales success in an exploding government business sector.”
The report, based on interviews with city and industry leaders, found that properly structured municipal wireless networks have the power to create substantial savings for state and local governments.
“Corpus Christi [Texas] is getting lots of press because it balanced the network value on automated meter reading and other aspects of trimming costs that made sense for them,” says Settles. “In Concord, California, they are saving $180,000 in cellular network charges. That was where immediate dollar savings came up.”
And it’s not just in operational costs, Settles says, that cities are saving money with muni Wi-Fi.
“[Government officials] really need to come to grips with what value this brings to them and stop trying to get it on the cheap when in reality it improves them as a government,” says Settles. “If I looked at asset management — managing fleets and physical assets, county hospitals, repair crews, construction projects where there are various assets like machinery and equipment — all of these things need to be tracked. Finding them can be time-consuming; things get lost. These assets have value to them when you start to add this up. In Philadelphia, for example, they had collected artwork to use in the schools and other public buildings. Over the years, things were recycled out and stored, until someone found them in some warehouse and tallied them up, and found out it was $2 million worth of assets.”
While governments can look to reduce overhead, increase efficiency and reap the benefits of better asset management, vendors can set their sights on a market that Settles says outpaces small and medium-size enterprise (SME) spending for mobile technology.
“On the vendor side, someone has to sell all these applications,” says Settles. “If you reduce the equation down to governments are either looking to reduce paperwork and paperwork processes or looking to reduce access to resources, then I, as a vendor or systems integrator, can ask, ‘How am I doing that on the commercial side? Can I repackage that on the government side?'”
Settles believes government mobile workforce applications will be a major contributor to the ROI (return on investment) of muni wireless networks, which translates to a great potential marketing opportunity for vendors and system integrators.
“Eliminating paperwork processing and improving interdepartmental operations are two needs that cut across most departments to offer sales potential for suppliers — applications that facilitate the ability to process reports from the field, for instance, as well as security, device management, databases and systems management,” Settles says. “That infrastructure of tools and support, vendors need to look at selling those on the government side.”
He cites fleet automation as one process that translates easily from the private sector to the public.
“If you’re selling to Hertz and Ford, the government is the same exact thing. They all have hundreds or thousands of vehicles that need to be tracked, fuel consumption needs to be monitored, etc. There’s a business case that can be made for that. There’s a huge market on the government side.”
The most successful models of municipal Wi-Fi, thus far, come from cities where creative, business-minded solutions were implemented, says Settles. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and Providence, Rhode Island top his list of cities that are doing it right.
“If you look at it as a significant investment with a greater return, then you can be more creative in how you structure the deal for putting that network in place,” says Settles. “[In Fredericton,] they said, ‘This network will bring a significant impact to the city. And it’ll be a reach for us to pay for it. But the value outweighs that expense.’ They got together with the business community and said, ‘Who here would be interested in owning this network in a co-op relationship where the businesses and the city are splitting the expense and the value?’ They are building it to capacity to support 12-13 of the largest businesses and the city itself. They spread out the cost among the participants in the co-op, and as a city, they still own and manage it, but the financial risk is mitigated by having those partners. Collectively, they have built a network that exceeds the capacity to support the biggest business users and also has enough to support anyone else who comes into this city.”
“[In Providence,] they have identified applications that have a significant impact on the amount of money saved or the productivity increased, that have a direct impact on how well they deliver a service,” Settles says. “On building inspection, they save an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon on paperwork; they can do building inspections faster. They can expedite the construction. The mayor has launched ‘revitalize’ construction projects, so they can speed it up. Providence funded the deployment in part by a grant from the Department of Justice. If you look at these things, you can find alternative funding sources. It doesn’t have to be tax-based. In their case, it was all about the Department of Justice. It wasn’t even Homeland Security.”
This kind of resourceful funding is essential if cities and towns want to have successful networks, says Settles, but it requires the foresight to plan carefully and examine all risks and benefits before launching into a deployment.
“This kind of creativity isn’t going to happen as long as everyone has this knee-jerk reaction that ‘we want muni wireless, so we have to get someone else to pay for it,'” says Settles. “I’ve made this statement many times: if the city abdicates responsibility for the network and its significant management role in the network, then the lofty political promises and all that good stuff will not happen.”