Every once in a while even an “expert” like myself has one of those humbling experiences that drives home the point that I really don’t know anything at all. While I welcome those instances, as they usually are times when I learn a lot, I will also willingly admit that these occurrences tend to be more than a little unnerving to someone who has always believed that I knew everything there was to know.

As they say, pride goeth before a fall…

I had the pleasure of attending the Wireless Summit in St. Charles, MO last week/weekend. While I would be the first to tell you that one never knows what any trade show, conference or event will turn out like, this one was very different from what I was expecting.

The Pre-Conference show on Friday featured many of the speakers that I had seen at the MuniWireless show in Atlanta a few weeks back so there was a repetition of information in many ways for me – even though it was all excellent information. Among others, Jonathan Baltuch of MRI and Jeff King of Northrop Grumman presented pretty much the same information they did in Atlanta – but sometimes the second time I hear something different points resonate with me. In this case Jonathan really hit home and I believe it was the fact that much of what he said became intertwined with other messages during this weekend.

Let me also take a moment to mention that Sascha Meinrath managed to bring together a very wide range of people with very varied backgrounds to come together and exchange differing viewpoints – something which is not only difficult to do but also to orchestrate. Let me clearly state that it is people of vision that can understand the value of events like this and Sascha definitely meets that criteria.

Okay, on to the meat (or soy, for those of you who would prefer) of the matter…

This industry is evolving (DUH) and as soon as there appears one model that “revolutionizes” the way we look at these networks someone else comes along and adds to that model. For whatever reason, I try to keep track of these changes, document this evolution (perhaps punctuated equilibrium might be a more apt term) and package it for everyone to follow along with. I suggested the term “punctuated equilibrium“ as opposed to “evolution” because I see it as a better fit. We don’t slowly evolve in a steady process but rather make leaps forward. As a specific example the term Municipal Wireless became part of our vocabulary as few years back and now that term (or the shortened MuniWireless) is used by everything from city officials to the main stream media. So too is the term Community Wireless even though it is not as popular – yet.

What I find amazing is the fact we are seeing a fragmentation happening in this field and an artificial fragmentation at that. Is there really a need for the term Community Wireless or have Municipalities now stopped being communities? Where this distinction was made last weekend seemed to be in the ownership of the network, did the Municipality (meaning the government) own this infrastructure or should the Community own the actual network? Can we trust the local government to own and operate this infrastructure or must control be maintained by the entire community (or as many people who wish to assume responsibility for this communications platform) be given the responsibility to run it. I would suggest that there is no one absolute solution which should work in every case and the flexibility to create whatever the community itself wants needs to be allowed for the maximum amount of freedom to be encouraged.

I would submit that each model has its advantages and corresponding flaws. While the Municipality has more resources and the ability to leverage these resources in significantly more ways they also tend to move very slowly and in a field that changes by the minute this could be a serious drawback. There is always the concern about free speech and censorship – something that each ownership scenario has to deal with. Regardless of whether the network is owned by the Municipality or the residents can lead to local control and perhaps the outright banning of content that the powers that be find offensive. For a clear definition of what I mean, think of a town that decides that only “approved content” will be allowed on “their” network. As an aside, I have seen ISPs make the statement that they do not want “obscene content” traveling over “their” networks which kind of defeats the entire concept of a “free” Internet. Ah well, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

This does bring up the point that what are these networks real purpose in our society? To my way of thinking, the answer to that question would be, to bring the greatest good to the most people – as they themselves define what is good for themself. This is the key to this discussion and something that needs to be explored further.

What started off as being a discussion directly concerning the Internet really needs to be reshaped into an entirely different discussion.

How so? I’m glad I asked.

One of my recent disagreements with many in this community has been to try to educate people that a WiFi cloud over a community should only be a small part of the entire package – a very small part. If we look at what the CONXX (yes, the company I work for) has managed to supply in the way of useful services to a community we find a multitude of very valuable services being employed on a 24 hour a day basis with zero WiFi involved – even though we are now looking at adding WiFi into the mix.

What we need to be looking at here is the need for the full range of services that can and must be part of just about any Municipal Network as well as included in any Community Network. Jeff King gave his presentation about how much money AMR (Automatic Meter Reading) saves the City of Corpus Christi, TX. This is a real application that utilizes the wireless cloud in a way that provides not only measurable saving to the community but also removes a very real risk to the city workers that used to perform that job. The same holds true with Public Safety utilizing the network or the very real saving that can be realized for government in the form of cost avoidance through utilizing the services a high quality wireless infrastructure can provide as opposed to paying the traditional telecommunications industry for voice and advanced data services. This isn’t small amounts of money we are talking about here, it can be quite substantial and that translates into very real savings directly to the taxpayer. This is an indirect value these networks bring to an area and there are quite literally hundreds more.

Even better, what I learned this weekend is that there are innovations that when allowed to flourish will bring even greater value to any given network. I met an very interesting gentleman from Montreal (I am sorry, I didn’t catch his name) who is rolling out a pretty spectacular multimedia platform and an inexpensive one at that. What he is doing is using SAN boxes like this one to roll out a “local content” service in his city.

How this concept works is very simple, he takes one of these boxes, fills it up with all kinds of local content from the area’s best bands, independent film makers, amateur news reporters as well as photographs from local photographers and deploys these boxes in the city’s various hot spots. This allows the people of Montreal to go to their favorite coffee shop, grab an espresso, open up their laptop computers and browse through a half a gig’s worth of constantly changing content. The content is rotated during non-business hours over the establishment’s Internet connection and is ready for the next day’s audience.

The artists that contribute content get exposure to the public as well as being able to include advertising for their schedule and the same holds true for the artists in any digital medium carried on these boxes. This is a win/win/win for the establishment that hosts the boxes as it provides an incentive for customers to stop in at their place, helps the local artists get exposure as well as the establishments that are also featuring the artists – and all for a few hundred dollars of hardware as well as some dedicated effort.

This was only one of the many excellent ideas that were presented at the Wireless Summit. While I like to think I stay on top of things it is nice to sometimes get that reality check and be taken down a peg.

Where this all ties back into the network is the most important point – It is the cumulation of all of these services that brings about the real and total value of these networks. It is not just about WiFi access to the Internet, it is about everything we do to leverage the use of this platform that justifies the expenditure. To say it another way, it is not all the “gee whiz” technology we employ, it is the enhancement to daily life where the real effect is made.

No one is arguing that these networks are not expensive – when they are built correctly they are very expensive. What we are saying is that based on the measurable improvements in the quality of life we are now documenting the investment (regardless of how hefty it may be perceived to be) provides a very solid return to a wider segment of the population than perhaps a skateboard park or a basketball court would. While I have nothing against either basketball courts or skateboard parks in a world with finite resources we need to make sure the majority of resources provide the best value to the majority of people.

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