David Boardman on municipal wireless applications

Cities and communities around the world are building out municipal networks. Why are they doing it? Some cite government or public safety applications. Others point to providing needed connectivity. No matter what the initial rationale, almost all answers include aspirational goals such as recruiting the creative class and enabling technological innovation and entrepreneurship. These common answers reflect a deeply heldCities and communities around the world are building out municipal networks. Why are they doing it? Some cite government or public safety applications. Others point to providing needed connectivity. No matter what the initial rationale, almost all answers include aspirational goals such as recruiting the creative class and enabling technological innovation and entrepreneurship. These common answers reflect a deeply held belief that wireless technology will improve our lives, but also reflect uncertainty about how to achieve these benefits. Community leaders are often used to projects that over several years help realize broad goals such economic development, but we wondered if innovative applications that reside on Wi-Fi might provide more concrete ways to attain these goals.

Leaders in community Wi-Fi networks such as Lev Gonick at One Cleveland and Rich MacKinnon at Austin Wireless City Project stress that what is most exciting about Wi-Fi is not the networks themselves, but the applications that will one day run on them. Will these applications help reach the high level goals community have for Wi-Fi clouds and hot zones? We believe the answer is yes. The interest to find such applications is certainly strong. Companies and individuals are investing heavily in this area. At the most recent Always On conference focusing on Wi-Fi at Stanford University, a venture capitalist in the San Francisco Bay Area said he had never seen more creativity and innovation in his 30 years in the Valley.

A few city clouds and zones have already begun to focus on applications and content. In Europe, our research found notable activity in Alston, England and Leiden, Netherlands with voice, data, and video applications. In the US, Long Beach, CA and Lower Manhattan, New York are examples of Wi-Fi networks that have developed applications to communicate with tourists and visitors. Champaign-Urbana has linked their network with a comprehensive independent media site.

In Athens, Georgia, we set out to realize our vision for clouds and zones. The two goals that drove us are:

Provide more to show. Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute at University of Georgia, described his dilemma when CNN and industry partners toured the Athens Wi-Fi cloud. He said, “What do I show that is unique and innovative? It certainly isn’t someone checking email on a park bench.‚Äö?Ñ?

Break the network. This sounds crazy, but we said to ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be great if we created software that generated so much usage that the network had to be upgraded?‚Äö?Ñ? Most large scale Wi-Fi implementations, including Athens’, were not heavily used.

With a small grant from the Georgia Research Alliance, we launched a prototype commercial service, “The Cloud at Athens‚Äö?Ñ? that provides branding, marketing, and community content over downtown Athens’ Wi-Fi network. It is not the Wi-Fi connectivity itself, but instead what users do once they are connected.

The Cloud addresses this challenge with a few key features:

– Locally branded portal;

– User account management to use the network and The Cloud services ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ these accounts are free;

– Merchant accounts that the municipal government, downtown retailers, restaurants and bars, indie newspapers, athletic teams, and music promoters use to connect with those who opt-in to their channels ‚Äö?Ñ?¨ these accounts require a monthly subscription fee;

– extension of The Cloud to cell phones and text messaging so that the community can be connected, even when they’re not logged in on a computer.

You can only see the full Cloud via Wi-Fi in downtown or on campus. Here are a few examples of The Cloud in action:

– the first fan to respond to a text message won four tickets to a sold out show that night by one of the best up and coming bands, The Drive by Truckers. Athens, the birthplace of REM, the B-52s, and Widespread Panic, is all about music;

– a lucky college football fan won a new Cingular phone by providing the best answers to a series of SMS football questions before and during the game;

– several hard core music lovers attended a secret late night concert because a journalist spread the word to music lovers’ cell phones about an unscheduled music video shoot when he saw the production begin;

– citizens avoided traffic headaches by acting on construction alerts they received the evening before from Athens-Clarke County government;

– prospective businesses envisioned the potential of locating in downtown when the Athens Downtown Development Authority used The Cloud to demonstrate Athens’ Wi-Fi community.

Reflecting on our goals, The Cloud definitely has met the first goal and given us something more to show. Has it broken the network? Not yet. But we have been amazed to see our membership grow to over 2100 members in a little more than 6 months with very little marketing. Previously the university counted roughly 200 users.

Here are some more usage figures:

Our weekly usage graph resembles a pyramid, with highest usage on Wednesdays. Prime time for The Cloud is late afternoon. Over 50% of Cloud members have opted-in to at least one merchant, and 15% of users have opted to connect with The Cloud via SMS. Merchants are excited about the system but often need help to creatively use it. Journalists and savvy marketers seem to have the best intuition in making use of The Cloud’s capabilities.

We are now taking The Cloud to other areas such as Denver, Colorado and Tempe, Arizona. Stapleton, the nation’s largest urban development, in Denver, CO has signed on as the first customer. Don Knasel, the Wi-Fi network planner at Stapleton as well as operator of web based community portals, believes that The Cloud at Stapleton can serve as the benchmark for community excellence in Wi-Fi.

Tempe enjoys free Wi-Fi in its Downtown District through WazTempe, a member of the WazAlliance. Mike Nasco, Managing Director of WazTempe stated, “A Wi-Fi hot zone enhanced with The Cloud makes such zones increasingly relevant for students, faculty, visitors, and the local economy. The City of Tempe is particularly unique in that it frequently attracts over 100,000 visitors to its Downtown District for events like the Tostitos Block Party, the Sun Bowl and its bi-annual Festival of the Arts. Connectivity is a prerequisite, and The Cloud is a key application.‚Äö?Ñ?

Applications and content will be an important part of municipal wireless. We encourage the leaders of municipal wireless projects to consider the applications that reside on these networks as much or even more than the networks themselves. Wi-Fi is an amazing tool, but it is not a solution to most community challenges by itself.

For more information, go to www.athenscloud.com.

****About the author****

David Boardman is founder and principal of Pervasive Services – provider of Wi-Fi content management system for municipalities and the sports industry. At Pervasive he has lead the creation The Cloud and FanConneX. The Cloud, developed for municipalities, is currently deployed in Philadelphia, Athens, GA, Stapleton, CO, and Tempe, AZ. FanConneX, for the sports industry, is currently powering the San Francisco Giants Digital Dugout at SBC Park. Prior to founding Pervasive Services in October of 2002, David led Hewlett-Packard’s software development consulting practice. David holds a masters degree in computer science from Purdue University and currently serves on the board of advisors of the Wireless Technology Forum.

Comments

  1. Mary Pat Huber says

    I’d like to know if any conferences are scheduled for Indianapolis or Purdue?