Archive for November, 2006

We have all heard that every journey begins with a single step but in the search to define what are the “best practices” in the Municipal Broadband Network industry the universal answer is, “We don’t know”.

The fact is there are no citywide network models that have been functioning for any long period of time that we could look to as examples of how other networks should be built and managed. We do know of many cities that are struggling to figure out how to construct a business model that will work in a sustainable manner over the long term, how to design such a project to take advantage of the this field’s ever-evolving technology and how this type of infrastructure can best benefit all of the different segments of their population.

As a real world example, I would like to introduce you to Adam Heller, the IT director for Bridgeport, CT as he attempts to gather as much information as he can over a three day period during the recent Muni Wireless event in Minneapolis. In this case, I am acting as a careful observer of this process with additional commentary provided by several of the knowledgeable people Adam met and interacted with at the show.

From Adam’s perspective, Bridgeport is in need of an overall WAN upgrade. Bridgeport’s connectivity between its various municipal facilities is substandard and as more enterprise applications are being implemented the WAN is not able to maintain consistent quality or throughput. As a result, Adam has begun to document what the city’s current infrastructure consists of and what alternatives exist to alleviate the extreme difficulties of accessing network resources.

In order to define this process Adam inventoried his current application environment paying particular attention as to how to go about upgrading them and inevitably, had to consider what impact future growth was going to have on the picture. In doing so, he framed the situation using the following questions:

  • What will be our future needs?
  • What applications are not currently being used that will be after an upgrade?
  • Are Public Safety needs being met?
  • Are we going to choose to add voice to this upgraded environment?
  • What is the city environment like? Is there a “public need” to be able to access municipal resources?

After careful examination of these questions Adam came to the conclusion that a network consisting of a solely wired solution is not a viable option. As the city develops with more construction occurring within the city, public safety communications is also becoming an issue. For some specific examples, traffic congestion is increasing as seen at most stop lights and access to parking is becoming increasingly difficult. Another area that needs to be improved is the need to streamline the building inspections and the building permit process so as to make the entire process more efficient. Additionally, there is also the very real need for mobile access to the Internet for the business community as well as providing for the communities at the lowest end of the economic scale, many of which do not have access to the Internet at all. This is all part of the myriad of issues that arise when we look closely at the future needs of our city’s network that as of today cannot meet our present requirements.

The question now becomes, if the city has the need for all of these extra resources, what technologies are available to meet these demands? This is what brings Adam to the MuniWireless event allowing him the opportunity to research the municipal wireless industry. Being in the unique position of planning an overall infrastructure upgrade, Adam felt that now is the time to explore what a municipal wireless network is and how it could be designed so as to incorporate an eventual deployment into Bridgeport’s plans, as well as avoid potential pitfalls as the city moves forward.

The first task is to define what a municipal wireless network is – specifically to their city. Is it the “wave of the future” or is it going to be yet another maintenance nightmare? What is the purpose of deployment? Is it going to serve the needs of the community as a whole? If not, what segments of the population will it serve? If so, what priorities will Adam have to set on deployment? Does Bridgeport go with an exclusively wireless network or do we go with a hybrid wireless/wired combination? What security issues will we face and are we opening ourselves up to a host of issues in that respect?

After deliberating all of these issues Adam has defined his concept for Bridgeport’s Municipal Wireless Network as follows:

A municipally owned and operated network that will provide access to municipal resources as well as providing Internet access to the community including those that may not currently have access. In addition, this network will provide for new services to enhance public safety and enhance the experience of everyone living or working in our city while encouraging community and economic development.

With that being said, how would one accomplish this task? The first thing to do is to find out what other communities are following this same route. The second thing to do is find a way to speak to industry experts to see how they define the criteria which should provide an explanation as to what they have experienced. As opportunity does seem to favor the prepared, it was at this time when Adam discovered that there is a conference designed to provide him with an opportunity to discuss municipal wireless with his peers, as well as to discuss these issues with people in the industry.

Adam’s first session was hosted by Dewayne Hendricks (Dandin Group) and focused on bandwidth. One of the fundamental decisions that needs to be addressed in any municipal deployment is how much throughout will the network deliver to the user. This is one of the more hotly debated questions and the fact is there really is no one right answer. This is a specification that each city must make a determination based on what they believe is right for their situation.

Dewayne Hendricks believes that “Life Begins at 100Mbps” and is now in the process of deploying just such a network in Sandoval County, New Mexico to demonstrate that concept. For Dewayne, the very idea that the United States is near the bottom of the world’s industrialized nations as far as broadband speeds is abhorrent – especially since the issue isn’t a technological limitation but instead caused by a combination of failed policy and an artificial scarcity of bandwidth created by the incumbents.

While showing that the technology exists and more importantly, at an acceptable price, Dewayne is also working towards lowering the wholesale cost of bandwidth. If we look at the cost of bandwidth in San Francisco versus the cost for the same amount of bandwidth in just about every small town or city in the US, it is easy to see why high speed broadband service has such a wide disparity from location to location. If you want to carry that comparison further one only need look to Asia where wholesale broadband costs significantly less making exceptionally high speed broadband service substantially less expensive to the end user. For a specific example, in Tokyo the cost of a 100Mbps connection is on par with a 3Mbps DSL connection in New York City and one can easily understand how this disparity will have a detrimental effect on any business that is broadband based or heavily depends on connectivity.

Attending the same session but taking a somewhat different view is Damien Fox (Wireless Nomad) who became interested in broadband deployment as a way of equalizing opportunity among his neighbors. As someone who never thought he would be interested in broadband technologies Damien was attracted to this industry when he realized that the digital divide had a very real effect on a person’s ability to get ahead.

As an example, let’s look at two children, perhaps classmates at the same school, who are given a history assignment on D-Day. The child on the dialup connection would be relegated to waiting for his computer to connect, then wait for a search engine page to load (taking the better part of a minute) clicking on a link (again, taking another minute for that page to load) and if we assume that this page has the necessary information the child was looking for this child’s entire educational experience would be reading a page of text with a grainy picture or two to illustrate the subject.

Conversely, the child on broadband would immediately see the search engine page load, would be able to quickly browse through several different sites and then could participate in a rich multimedia experience which might include actual footage taken at the battle or audio recordings of interviews from veterans who participated in this event.

The stark reality is that one child is going to have far better educational opportunities than the other with the tragedy being that the real cost to provide this resource to both children is negligible – but only if we chose to do so.

One point Damien did emphasize in the follow up conversation was that there’s no such thing as a free network and one should not underestimate the cost of providing real access to information resources rather than just total up the cost of a monthly DSL line and an obsolete computer. It is important to keep in mind that despite all the costs of bridging the digital divide, the cost of not doing so is far greater, in the long term and the bottom line is that to a child that has a dialup connection (or no connection at all) even a 1Mbps broadband connection is a godsend.

As you can see, for Adam, this is exactly the conversation he was hoping to become part of when he decided to book this trip.

In a subsequent conversation that took place later that evening, the subject of what should be the minimum connection throughput a municipal network should provide again was again brought up. Jay Barnell (Barnell Technology Services) submitted this observation for consideration, “What we really need to continually do is hold ourselves up to the international community for comparison as opposed to each community looking at the neighboring city up the interstate to gage of how we are all doing.” This reinforces the point that Dewayne is making that we need to be setting our goals high enough to make sure we are relevant as we move forward, even though there is no arguing that if the financial resources are the overall constraint, providing something is always better than nothing.

As the discussion continued the next day, an informal, ad hoc group formed to address some of the other questions that make up the foundation of a Municipal project were also tackled. Drew Lentz (Meshtek) hammered the point home that the three most important things to remember was “Design, design, design.” Over the years Drew has repeatedly run across instances of network deployments where the builder pushed the equipment’s specifications beyond where it should be realistically expected to go. As one would expect, this inevitably leads to a network that cannot live up to its expectations.

The other side of this issue is where the network’s specifications were not clearly spelled out or explained properly, creating the same scenario of failure where the network does not live up to the buyer’s (or the end user’s) expectations. One such issue is any type of promise which tries to specify what percentage of end users will be able to connect without the need of additional equipment. (CPE) In dense residential areas where buildings made of wood, brick, stone as well as stucco the individual user experience will vary in ways that is impossible to predict with any accuracy. Unless the entire user base is provided with a well organized educational campaign there will surely be some people who will feel slighted as they will need to spend a significant amount of money to get connected where their neighbor will not.

To complicate matters further, there may also be an eventual failure that may not manifest itself immediately as there will always be a considerable lag from the network launch and the time when the critical mass of users become part of the network. Couple that with the knowledge that the services end users are now demanding will require more bandwidth, as in the case of YouTube, and you have a disaster just waiting to happen.

Perhaps the most insidious subject to come up in the conversation was that of dealing with network security. Ash Dyer, a recent graduate of MIT and now part of the Cambridge Public Internet project, brought up several very important points that many Municipal Network managers might not even be aware of. While many of the security issues wireless networks face are also problems on wired networks, they are exacerbated by the omnidirectional nature of wireless. Incredibly, something as simple as a rogue access point added to the network without proper protection could potentially compromise thousands of people’s data. Drew Lentz added that off-the-shelf programs widely available as a free download (Ethereal as an example) could allow anyone to intercept anything from regular user account
information (including passwords) to credit card numbers and banking information. Ash responded that when the potential for compromising sensitive municipal data is also likely in these cases a well-publicized security breach on one of these networks could have serious ramifications across the entire industry.

For someone like Adam, this is the stuff that nightmares are made of. However, if we accept that knowledge is the best prevention in staving off these types of failures, Adam will tell you that the best three days he could have spent learning what he needed to know was at the MuniWireless event and I don’t think it would be presumptuous to expect we will be seeing him at the Dallas show in March.