CONNECTED COMMUNITIES: Municipalities discover innovative ways to keep their citizens connected - Metropolitan Planning Council

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CONNECTED COMMUNITIES: Municipalities discover innovative ways to keep their citizens connected

Beyond the well-known high tech regions, communities throughout the U.S. are implementing ways to provide their citizens with affordable, high-speed Internet services.

Since 1999, the Metropolitan Planning Council has been working with the City of Chicago on the development of CivicNet — a high performance telecommunications network that will connect 2,000 government locations and provide access on an open network to businesses, to spur economic development in Chicago’s neighborhoods. While initially envisioned as a fiber build-out network, CivicNet will likely include high-speed access both through fiber lines and wireless services. The contract, worth up to $30 million-a-year for ten years, is unique in combining the purchasing power of several government agencies, as well as providing access for private users.

MPC has also advised efforts in other parts of the region — especially the south suburbs — in ways to accelerate broadband services to anchor economic development. Just as the railway and highway systems fueled growth in the past, broadband is increasingly a requirement for nearly all types of businesses — not just high tech companies.

As a part of MPC's ongoing goal of informing communities in northeastern Illinois of best practices, MPC assessed efforts across the country. Looking beyond well known high-tech regions, this article focuses on a regional effort in Utah, Long Beach, Calif. and Tallahassee, Fla.

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency — UTOPIA

UTOPIA is an agency formed from 17 Utah communities with the purpose of “… accelerating economic development and quality of life … by deploying a publicly owned, advanced telecommunications network over the last mile to all homes and businesses within member communities.” The 17 communities create a coverage area that encompasses approximately 75 percentof the state’s population. Significant expansion is expected, with new communities expressing interest in becoming UTOPIA members. The Utah Interlocal Cooperation Act allows for Utah communities to form and enter into Interlocal agreements to combine and perform governmental services they would have traditionally performed individually. The all-fiber network is capable of delivering speeds between 100 mbps and 1,000 mbps. Operating as an Open Service Provider Network, UTOPIA provides wholesale transport services with each provider managing its own customer relationships.

UTOPIA provides “equal and universal access to advanced telecommunications services for all residents and businesses.”The availability of high-speed telecommunications services has been determined to have an impact on housing and business location decisions. The projectprovides incentives to existing businesses to stay in connected partner communities, while attracting new businesses to the area. The network gives consumers more choices: "better products, lower prices and access to enhanced educational and healthcare services."

The Long Beach Hot Zone

Using a wireless standard called Wireless Fidelity (WI-FI), the Long Beach Development Bureau is providing free, outdoor, high-speed wireless Internet access to its downtown residents and visitors. Through this standard, anyone with a laptop computer equipped with a standard wireless network interface card (WNIC) in the downtown area can access the Internet at no cost. The user accesses the system by simply opening her Internet browser within reception range. The Long Beach Pine Avenue Hot Zone portal site is automatically loaded. The coverage area is currently limited to the Pine Avenue area where the first Hot Zone went live in January of 2003. The city plans to extend the network to the convention center, marina area and the Long Beach airport. City planners see The Long Beach Hot Zone project as a marketing tool to attract new businesses and tourists.

WI-FI was once viewed by industry leaders as a simple grassroots movement that would never gain wide acceptance in the world of true Wide Area Networking. Bolstering their arguments were the facts that the technology itself had limited range ability and could be implemented with cheap, household equipment (empty Pringles cans have been used to boost reception). The  Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does not regulate the 2.4 ghz wavelength that WI-FI operates in.  This leaves the technology wide open for scrutiny from security analysts who believe the value of any network can only be measured by the integrity of its data delivery and the ability to secure it from unwanted attack. Without adequate security, WI-FI appeared to be a flash-in-the-pan technology. Adding criticism are the issues of signal interference from current generation cordless and cellular phones and microwave ovens in close proximity to wireless equipment (access points, routers and WNICS). But despite these concerns, WI-FI continues to get both national and international attention as it has been reported to be supporting viable networks in more than 40 U.S. cities and many more abroad. Other wireless protocols in the WI-FI family such as 802.11g and 802.11a operate in wavelengths other than the most popular 2.4 ghz range. The different protocols provide a range of security and speed of data delivery.

WI-FI networks piggyback off of high-speed Internet connections like T-1 lines, DSL or cable modems, where the signal is originated. Wireless networks are basically comprised of three components — routers, access points and client devices. The components communicate with each other via radio frequency transmissions, eliminating the need for cabling. Compatible communication devices allow the network to come alive. Often a technician is not needed, making deployment easy for consumers and small businesses. With good equipment and placement, the network’s range can be easily extended anywhere from 30 feet to 4 miles, making WI-FI as a last mile alternative a reality.

Tallahassee’s Digital Canopy


The red dots indicate access points providing a 12 block "canopy" of coverage where anyone in range with proper equipment can surf the Internet for free.

Tallahassee, Florida partnered with private vendors, universities and information technology companies in a community-based initiative called Digital Canopy that intends to stimulate the development of wireless technology while promoting the use of applications that benefit the local economy. Tallahassee considered expanding the Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) to address three key objectives: improving the mobility and efficiency of City employees through mobile workforce functionality;solving the challenge of the Digital Divide by building a "smart community"; and generating revenues through wholesale provision of services to local service providers.

Tallahassee intends to duplicate the success of the downtown deployment in other areas based on results from studies conducted to determine the feasibility of expansion. The results were presented to the City commission in November 2002 and indicate that the wireless network “could provide enhanced productivity to City work crews” and may also provide economic stimulus to the community by providing wireless broadband access for resale by local Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Digital Canopy consists of several access points placed strategically throughout a 12-block area in downtown Tallahassee. The access points are connected through fiber optic cables to a router and switch in City Hall that provides the physical Internet connection. Operational since February 2002, the free service has been well received by users. The plan is to expand the coverage so that Digital Canopy could provide wireless access throughout most of the city.

More Information

This article drew from the following sources:

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