By Adam Stone
September 28, 2007
Furtherance of public policy aims may be key to future community WLAN development.
At a time when publicly-funded municipal Wi-Fi schemes are falling flat around the nation, the city of Tucson, Ariz. has just gone live with a wireless mesh project that is boosting the ability of medical personnel to deliver care en route to the hospital and could support a range of other civic services.
In recent weeks, San Francisco, Chicago, and St. Louis all announced moves that would either scale back or scuttle their municipal Wi-Fi projects.
In Tucson, meanwhile, a $1.9 million federal public safety grant helped pave the way for the new wireless infrastructure. But it took more than money to make it work. It took sound business logic as well.
“You have make sure you are solving a specific problem that has specific value to somebody,” said Ron Sege, President of CEO of Tropos Networks, which designed and deployed the network along with system integrator SmartWAVE Technologies. Unlike more general-purpose Wi-Fi schemes that have failed to get off the ground, “in this case there was a specific public policy problem that needed to be addressed.”
The 230 square-mile Wi-Fi network enables the successful implementation of ER-Link, a video-based emergency medical services telemedicine system. The system delivers video and vital information telemetry from all 17 Tucson Fire Department ambulances to doctors at Tucson’s University Medical Center. The live video feed helps doctors assess a patient’s condition en route to the hospital.
This deployment comes on the heels of several other efforts in which Tropos has deployed municipal Wi-Fi in support of specific policy needs. In Milpitas, Calif. the company put together a broadband system to allows police to monitor high-traffic intersections. In Houston it enabled wireless credit card transactions at parking meters.
In this case, though, the company faced the added factor of fast-moving mobile users. “Imagine going 60 miles an hour across the city and having a live video conversation with a doctor, and switching as you go from one lamppost to another,” Sege said. “That is obviously pretty challenging. There is a lot of software gymnastics involved.”
“Wi-Fi historically was not a mobile technology,” he noted. “So a lot of our software has gone into overcoming the limitations of Wi-Fi in a mobile context.”
That possibility of mobility does more than just expand potential uses of Wi-Fi. In Sege’s view, it also helps municipalities make that crucial case in favor of public spending on wireless infrastructure. “We’ve pushed the edge of the envelope one more time and found an application that not only is cool but also saves lives,” he said. “If I am the mayor my job is to save lives, improve education and lower taxes. If you can demonstrate a technology that achieves any one of those public policy objectives, you’ve got a good business opportunity.”
In addition to enhancing emergency-health services, Tucson also is using its Wi-Fi network to address the somewhat more mundane—though fiscally significant—matter of traffic management.
The Tropos mesh transmits traffic-signal data in real time. It shows red, green and yellow lights and gives video updates on large concentrations of pedestrians, thus allowing managers to optimize settings for different days and times. The city says this new system will save about $200,000 in telecommunications expenses.
With medical video up and running, Francisco Leyva, a project manager with the Tucson Transportation Department, has laid out a number of other potential applications now under consideration:
- Field use by police officers
- Tracking firefighters while they are inside buildings
- Remote reporting and monitoring by water department field workers
- Intelligent traffic signs alerting drivers to road conditions in real time
- Enhanced mobility for building inspectors, who could file reports on the go
The common thread in all these ideas is necessity. These aren’t just nice things to have, but rather specific enhancements that fulfill policy needs.
And that’s what makes muni Wi-Fi tick, Sege said.
“The generic idea of, ‘Let’s give everybody in the city free Wi-Fi,’ while beneficial to the citizens, just may not create enough benefit to whoever might be paying for the project,” he said.
Arguably, a broad nonspecific user base might meet the policy objective of encouraging economic development through a business-friendly atmosphere. But as recent events have shown, anything more general than that simply may not be able to build up sufficient fiscal speed to achieve liftoff.