TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Selling City Halls on Wireless as a Utility

Selling City Halls on Wireless as a Utility

Candace Lombardi, (
Tue, 05 Jun 2007 13:49:42 -0500

Candace Lombardi, for

NEWTON, Mass.--At this week's MuniWireless New England conference,
leaders in municipal broadband are extolling the benefits of their
technology to urban officials. But is the pitch falling on deaf ears?

On Monday morning, "MuniWireless 101" panelists said that
high-bandwidth broadband infrastructures become public safety tools
for law enforcement and first responders, help alleviate costs for
public schools, aid the rising population of telecommuters, back
future entertainment for personal computers, and support public
wireless networks.

The U.S. isn't exactly in the lead when it comes to building such
infrastructures, though. Some at the two-day conference here pointed
to Asian countries that compete economically with the U.S., such as
India and Malaysia, as being far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to
building high-bandwidth broadband infrastructure nationwide.

"Is it happening? Yes. Is it happening in the U.S.? No. I'm sorry to
say it's a bloody mess," said Ken DiPietro, the chief technology
officer of NextGen Communications.

Access to high-capacity broadband service is one of the benefits of
public wireless networks, but there are numerous others. DiPietro said
that the popularity of the Joost video-on-demand program, for example,
points to an inevitable switch to Internet Protocol television, or
IPTV, in lieu of traditional broadcast television and that such a
change will put even more strain on broadband networks unless they are
built to be upgradeable every three to five years.

Panelists also cited the rise of telecommuting and businesses'
increasing use of bandwidth-eating video conferencing technology as
justification for municipalities building, or beefing up, wireless

Some uses mentioned were more exotic. Cisco Systems, for example, is
offering relatively inexpensive options for telepresence technology,
which uses a highly sensitive interface to allow humans to remotely
control devices as if they were present at the remote location. But
for such a system to work, "you still need the continuous bandwidth to
go with it," DiPietro said.

For cash-strapped municipalities, however, the main issue is price.

"I am from a town with 25,000 people. How can we do this for free
without using any tax dollars?" asked one municipal leader.

The question provoked a visible smiles and audible sighs among the
panelists -- and chuckles from the audience. That's because the
question embodied one of the issues that the industry is up against:
convincing municipalities to invest.

"It comes down to: Do you consider it a service or a utility? I consider
it a utility," said Ash Dyer, a researcher at MIT involved in program in
Cambridge, Mass., to bring wireless to 95 percent of the city.

Dyer suggested that both companies and municipalities should look at
past government models in this instance. He cited the U.S. highway
infrastructure built under the Eisenhower administration as one model
the federal government should consider adopting.

"They built stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere, between
major areas and cities and then told them 'OK, you have to build your
stretch if you want to be connected,'" Dyer said.

"As hard as this is going to be, you need to bite the bullet and pay
or your town is going to get left behind," DiPietro said. He pointed
out that many business plans are set up so that the municipalities do
make money from their investment after three years.

Michael Dillon, director of digital communications for IBM, offered a
more diplomatic answer.

"Don't try to build it all at once. Poll your citizens and businesses,
and see if it's something they are open to investing in," he said.

Panelists said they saw a lack of leadership at the federal level as
one of the challenges they face in getting towns and cities

Dillon and DiPietro said the Federal Communications Commission should
step up its involvement, while Dyer suggested that a federal
department of telecommunications should be established.

"We don't have a federal broadband policy," Dillon said. "It's a lot
easier for federally based countries, such as Malaysia, to decree or
establish policy."

Copyright 2007 CNET, Inc.

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