Municipal public safety conference notes

For those of you who missed the Wireless Internet and Municipal Public Safety Conference organized by the Wireless Internet Institute in San Mateo last June 29 and 30, I am posting my conference notes (by no means a complete diary of the conference). It is one of the best conferences I have attended because of the small audience, all of For those of you who missed the Wireless Internet and Municipal Public Safety Conference organized by the Wireless Internet Institute in San Mateo last June 29 and 30, I am posting my conference notes (by no means a complete diary of the conference). It is one of the best conferences I have attended because of the small audience, all of whom were deeply interested in the subject matter and the interesting (non-sales-oriented) presentations. Potential buyers far outnumbered vendors and the discussions were open and informative. Not surprisingly, many attendees were from police departments in California.

San Mateo Police Department presentation

Lieutenant Wayne Hoss of the San Mateo Police Department gave a presentation about their city-wide public safety Wi-Fi network which uses Tropos mesh solution.

Here are a few details about the San Mateo network:
– they obtained $50,000 in grant money for the project;
– one staff person maintains the network;
– the city owns the street lights on which the Tropos mesh nodes are mounted so they were able to avoid the long procedures involved in getting permission from private owners. In addition, the nodes draw power from the lamp posts;
– Wi-Fi coverage is 3 square miles;
– there are 3 wired gateways and 18 wireless nodes;
– little interference from other networks;
– network is secure and CLETS compliant; and
– they would like to share their network with other municipal agencies (it would make the grant money go a longer way).

Lessons learned
– let vendors do the engineering;
– create wireless coverage only where you want your officers to be (if you cannot have it everywhere);
– place nodes on city property such as street lamps;
– have realistic expectations of wireless technologies when looking at alternatives such as CDMA and 3G; and
– be aware that there are limited public safety applications for public safety agencies.

IBM presentation

Gabriel Vizzard (IBM) gave an interesting presentation on differences in wireless broadband deployments in the US and Europe, as well as the economic reasons for building such networks. Gabriel believes that widespead deployment of license-exempt wireless broadband networks will create profound changes in the way we interact with one another. In the US, municipalities lean towards single-purpose networks (example: public safety) but in other countries, cities want multiple-use networks. US cities are creating demand for a new set of services that run on wireless broadband networks.

The reasons for building these networks are:
– telco replacement savings (lower telecommunications costs);
– efficiency (mobile office and workforce);
– security (enabling video surveillance and data transfer);
– revenue (wireless ISPs);
– community impact (city amenity).

Any employee who takes a work order, such as utility inspectors and repair personnel, can become much more productive if they can spend more time out in the field and do not have to come back to the office to gain access to information and fill out reports.

Needs analysis and applications panel

Representatives from Houston County (Georgia), Portsmouth (UK) and Spokane (Washington) gave detailed presentations about their city Wi-Fi networks.

Matt Stone (Houston County, Georgia) discussed the county-wide wireless broadband network they are thinking of implementing. It has just undergone successful testing, but still needs approval from the county government. During the test, they managed to get approximately 6.8 Mbps over 11.5 miles (although a local telco told them that it was impossible to send a signal out greater than 3 miles). Matt emphasized the need to have strong partners (systems integrator, vendor). He also warned people not to underestimate the ability of incumbent operators to kill local initiatives and called upon wireless advocates to outmaneuver them. In Houston County, they developed the Cooperative Wholesale model through which the county would resell excess capacity to operators. The county wants to cut its monthly $6000 telecommunications bill. The first customers for the network would be government offices and defense contractors. He estimates that the return on investment takes 10 months.

John Domblides of Portsmouth (UK) provided a look into how Wi-Fi can alleviate a city’s transportation problems. Portsmouth is a densely populated city in southern England. They have 180,000 residents but during the school term, that number goes up to 215,000. There are few major roads in and out of the city, so they try to encourage people to take public transportation by making it easy to find information about buses and trains. They have a Real Time Passenger Information system that allows people to find out relevant information about their buses, connections, etc. They started in 2002 and received 1.5 million pounds from the government to deploy the network. It is a sophisticated wireless network that links buses, Wi-Fi kiosks at bus stops and nodes placed on top of CCTV poles. I am really impressed by what Portsmouth has accomplished.

Joel Hobson of Spokane, Washington talked about the city’s dual-use network: public safety and public access. This is unusual for a city because most are afraid to share their public safety networks. The project started with Hoopfest, an annual basketball tournament, and when it was over, they decided to keep the Vivato antennas and instead expand the network to cover 100 blocks of downtown Spokane. The city is not acting as an ISP, instead, they are working with OneEighty Networks, a local CLEC, which will provide public access service. They are also planning to connect various institutions such as the city government, schools, hospitals, etc.

In all, I felt the conference was a success and I gained a lot by talking to people wanting to deploy public safety networks across very large areas (counties), as well as vendors of equipment whose technologies are still evolving. Thanks to Daniel Aghion and Noopur Jhunjhunwala of W2i.org for organizing a terrific conference.