Technology

Working Without Wires

If you're looking for cadres of BlackBerry addicts or Bluetooth-heads, don't look in Corpus Christi. There's nary a laptop computer to be seen on the...
by | April 30, 2007
 

If you're looking for cadres of BlackBerry addicts or Bluetooth-heads, don't look in Corpus Christi. There's nary a laptop computer to be seen on the sleepy streets downtown, not a handheld gizmo in sight on the breezy promenade by the bay-front marinas. Yet, this south Texas community keeps landing on top-10 lists of the world's "most digital" cities.

Prowling some less-than-obvious places here will uncover signs of technological wonder. Such as the side of a home, behind the bushes, where a wireless utility meter beams water and gas readings to city hall. Or the skate park on the waterfront, where a wireless video camera watches for vandalism (but mostly captures totally sweet jumps). Or inside police cruisers, where officers can speedily download crime maps, mug shots or aerial photos - data-heavy tools that would crash squad-car laptops almost anywhere else.

All of these advances are practically invisible to people on the street. But then again, so is the main reason for Corpus Christi's recent technological notoriety. It's the wireless Internet, or "WiFi." Mobile broadband blankets Corpus Christi, from its oil refineries to its Gulf Coast beach resorts, like a phantom fog. It spreads from 1,600 shoebox-sized routers attached to street lamps arrayed over 147 square miles. In most cities around the country, wireless broadband access is generally confined to tiny bubbles in parks or libraries. Even in Philadelphia, the much-heralded pioneer of city-wide wireless, the service is active only in a 15-square-mile test area. Corpus Christi, with a population of 282,000, is one of the first to deploy a network on a truly metro scale.

What early results in Corpus Christi indicate is that the nationwide buzz around municipal WiFi is all wrong. Most of the chatter is about Internet access for citizens and businesses. WiFi will change the world, the tech gurus tell us, once anyone with a laptop or some newfangled handheld device can easily take Yahoo and YouTube to go. Others hype wireless as the Internet on-ramp for poor people. Statistics in Corpus Christi tell a different story. On one typical day in January, public users accessed the system just 2,288 times. Assuming that nobody logged on more than once, that's less than one session for every 120 people. Not exactly changing the world.

Where WiFi actually does ignite life-altering change is on the government side. Corpus Christi uses wireless connections to keep building inspectors, code enforcers, police, firefighters and EMTs hooked into the office while out in the field. WiFi helps keep tabs on property such as water towers and vehicles. More telling than the current government applications, however, are the wild ideas bubbling up because the wireless Internet now makes them feasible. Those ideas aren't always practical or affordable - that super cool remote-control crime-fighting surveillance helicopter probably won't fly. But Corpus Christi managers are free to dream about how to use the WiFi cloud. Around city hall, the official buzz phrase for this is "cloud chasing."

The unofficial phrase, preferred among the wry grunts in the city's IT department, is "crack smoking." They mean this tongue-in-cheek, of course. But Russell Young, a salty self-described tech geek who works for the city, returns to this joke again and again to describe his team's search for WiFi's "killer app."

"Now we get into the crack smoking," Young says, grabbing at his moppy brown hair. Police already have video cameras in their squad cars. Why not put cameras on the cops? Badge cam! Young can hear angry officers yelling at him even as he tosses the idea out there. "Sometimes we have to take away the crack pipe," he says. "There's way too many ideas to even try."

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Corpus Christi offers a glimpse into a future that for dozens of cities and counties is coming soon. A wave of mega-networks, still under construction in places such as Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and Washtenaw County, Michigan, is set to go live by the end of the year. What will cities and counties do with all that new connectivity?

Up to now, that question has been an afterthought. Many cities plunged into WiFi for reasons having to do with public access rather than municipal uses. Some want to give citizens an affordable, perhaps even free, way to get online to help bridge the digital divide. In other places, the business community is driving the discussion, arguing that wireless Internet access is good for economic development and a handy tool for business travelers.

Rolling out these networks is taking longer than expected. Municipalities are literally inventing a new industry - perhaps the next utility - so local leaders are making up the rules as they go. Politics has gotten in the way, too. Cable and phone companies fought WiFi efforts both locally and in the state legislatures. They didn't want cities competing with their broadband offerings.

The business model for municipal WiFi has been far from clear. Early on, cities thought they'd build these networks themselves, as Corpus Christi did. But not every city could find a spare $5 million or $10 million in their budgets to do that. So they looked for alternatives, particularly "free" business models under which private operators would use advertising to support WiFi access for citizens and government users. However, the premise of getting something for nothing made a lot of localities skittish.

Public-private partnerships are the model of the moment. Details vary from one place to another, but the basic outline is the same. The municipality leases street lamps to a vendor who uses the light poles to post and power a network of WiFi transmitter/receivers. The vendor charges users around $15 to $20 per month for Internet access, with a few pockets of free wireless access in parks, say, or outside city hall. Importantly, the vendors agree to sell access at wholesale rates. That means competitors can sell WiFi, too. Since Philadelphia chartered this model with Earthlink a bit more than a year ago, the telephone and cable companies have stopped their grumbling. Some even began bidding on municipal contracts. AT&T, for example, is helping to build a WiFi network for Riverside, California.

But the industry is still in flux. Granbury, a suburb south of Dallas, started with a public-private wireless model. But soon that Texas town began feeling ignored by its corporate partner. Police officers, building inspectors and others had become dependent on WiFi, yet had little recourse when the network would crash. Wanting more control, Granbury bought out the 10-square-mile network for about $225,000 in March. "Be careful how you pick your partners," says Anthony Tull, Granbury's information technology director. "Things that are a problem for you may not be a problem to the provider."

Corpus Christi is going in the opposite direction. In March, the city sold its network to Earthlink for about $5.5 million - and with it the long-term burden of maintaining and upgrading the system. Those are Earthlink's responsibilities now. So is customer service for citizen users, whose free ride with WiFi is done. Earthlink now charges customers $20 per month. "We said all along we didn't want to be in the Internet service provider business," says Skip Noe, Corpus Christi's city manager.

And so Corpus Christi's business model is ending up where most other cities are starting. A common element to all these public-private schemes is that the cities agree to act as "anchor tenants." That means they agree to buy a certain number of WiFi accounts for municipal use. Just up the coast, for example, Houston's deal with Earthlink requires the city to purchase $500,000 worth of service per year. That's equivalent to 4,000 accounts for government users. Now Houston and dozens of other soon-to-be wireless cities need to figure out what to do with that bandwidth.

FROM BARKS TO BYTES

Corpus Christi is ahead of everyone else because of some vicious dogs. A few years ago, a water department employee named Scott Rousslang jumped a fence into a customer's yard in order to read a water meter. A pit bull and two other dogs attacked. Rousslang, bitten more than 20 times, survived. The incident, nevertheless, got people wondering if there might be a better way to bill water and gas customers.

There were two ways, in fact. The first, pretty common nowadays, was to send utility readings from a wireless meter to a truck that has to drive down every street in the city. The second required a wireless Internet connection. With WiFi, meters could zap water and gas readings all the way back to computers at city hall twice a day. No trucks. No dogs. The city built out a pilot wireless network to test this new automated meter-reading system.

Only later did city officials realize what they'd stumbled upon. WiFi was bigger than water meters. Citizens would find this valuable. Other city departments would, too. So Corpus Christi went ahead and built out wireless infrastructure for the whole city. And managers in all departments began thinking hard about what they wanted to do with it. In the fall of 2004, they gathered at the Museum of Science and History for a half-day brainstorming session. "Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of our employees don't have an office," Noe says. "This is an opportunity to create that connection to the worker in the field."

Since then, Corpus Christi has become something of a national proving ground for WiFi applications. With some financial and technical help from Intel Corp. and the nonprofit Public Technology Institute, the city has explored, tested or implemented about two dozen ways of using WiFi. Those applications include mobile capabilities that simply weren't feasible before, as well as existing applications and services that WiFi makes more efficient or less expensive.

The Municipal Information Systems Department on the fourth floor of city hall is Corpus Christi's WiFi lab. When Russell Young went to work there in 2002, his first task was to figure out how to juice up the sluggish data connections in police cars. So it's natural that Young views WiFi largely as a bandwidth booster - a means, not an end. Young says WiFi is "like Cat-5 cable - who cares, as long as it works? What matters are the cool things you can do with it."

Public safety is tops on Young's list. Just a few years ago, police were stuck on grindingly slow data systems, about eight times slower than a dial-up modem. Now, WiFi gives them download speeds of 500 to 700 kilobits per second - nearly as fast as a typical home broadband connection. They can go online using a normal Web browser and visit a dozen useful sites. Sorry, no MySpace. But Corpus Christi's ordinances, its sex-offender database and Google Maps are all on the white list. So is Pictometry, a tool that serves up stunningly clear aerial images in 3-D. "Say there's a hostage situation," Young says, pulling up an example on his laptop, a bird's-eye view of a four-story condo building. Young rotates the image, noting the doors, windows and the fence outside - bits of information responding police officers can now study before they even get to the scene. "That's an 8-foot fence," Young says. "Don't jump it!"

In public safety circles, the application that's whipping up the biggest buzz is digital video. Inside police cars, digital is on track to replace VHS tapes as a check against racial profiling. WiFi also enables surveillance cameras. When vandals tagged Corpus Christi's new skate park in January, the police department asked for a camera to watch the place. In a matter of hours, the IT shop had a camera up and was streaming video back to the police dispatch center.

As Young sees it, digital video is the wireless Internet's blessing and its curse. While WiFi makes it simple to stream video from anywhere, since the network is already in place, video also hogs bandwidth. Plus, if you put up a camera, then someone has to watch it. "You can record it," Young says, "but then you just went from a $400 job to about $80,000. You need a back-end system to record it, time stamp it and search it. Those aren't cheap."

There's one other problem with WiFi. Corpus Christi built the network to be most reliable in established neighborhoods, so signal strength can be weak or non-existent in undeveloped areas. That's a problem for building inspectors, whose jobs often take them to sites in unpopulated parts of town. For that reason, inspectors and police officers, who also occasionally fall into black holes, sometimes have to flip over to a commercial wireless service as a backup.

TO ZAP A THIEF

Corpus Christi's hunt for WiFi's killer app continues. There are two candidates for that title. Neither application sounds very sexy. But one may save a lot of water. The other may save a lot of lives.

The first application goes back to where WiFi started in Corpus Christi: the water meters. Automated meter reading, it turns out, does much more than keep angry dogs from terrorizing utility workers. It's also handy for catching water thieves.

To see how, you have to look on as Pam Elkins taps away on a computer at city hall. Elkins is Corpus Christi's utility billing manager. She pulls up the account of a customer chosen at random. The page shows a red bar graph telling exactly how much water the household has been using, day by day. This kind of detailed data is unheard of in water departments. Instead, water bills are typically based on monthly or quarterly reads and, to an astounding degree, guesswork.

As Elkins studies this customer's account, something catches her eye. Mysteriously, the person's meter has been turning backward. It's actually quite common for customers to steal water by tampering with their meters, Elkins explains. (They're typically afraid to do this with the gas meters.) It used to take a whole month's billing cycle to catch water thieves. Now, with twice-daily meter readings, fraud can be spotted immediately. Thieves are assessed a $50 "tampering" fee. "Sometime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on February 15, this customer turned their meter around," Elkins says.

The next breakthrough may encourage water conservation by fundamentally changing the way consumers view the water coming out of their taps, shower heads and garden hoses. That will come in the not-too-distant future when water customers get Web access to the same data Elkins is looking at. For the first time, customers will see direct connections between daily water usage and what they pay for it. Sprinkling the lawn today? Washing the car? Filling up the pool? Those kinds of things will show up as big spikes in usage - and send just the sort of price signal that may persuade customers to think twice about taking long showers. "Before, customers couldn't figure out why their bill was high one month and low another," Elkins says. "Now they'll be able to see it."

The city's other killer app is still in development. It aims to fix one of the biggest problems with emergency medical services - the situation that arises when EMTs respond to a person who's unconscious or inaudible. This happens quite a bit, and responding technicians have no reliable way to know whether the patient has allergies or takes certain medications. Corpus Christi's idea is to see if WiFi access to an emergency medical database can put that information in the EMTs' hands before the ambulance arrives.

Participation by citizens would have to be voluntary, because of health privacy laws. But the hope is that the elderly and people with chronic conditions would share basic medical facts - which type of insulin a diabetic uses, for example. That way, when EMTs respond to a 911 call, they would already know which conflicting medicines not to administer, saving valuable time and avoiding costly mistakes.

Health officials are taking this idea one step further. WiFi could also help on the trip back to the hospital. EMTs could beam the patient's vital signs to the emergency room, giving doctors a heads up about the next crisis about to roll in the door. Those docs might even get to see real-time video of treatment in the ambulance.

Some governmental applications of WiFi will not pay off as imagined at this early stage. Others will take time to mature. But until more communities get their networks up and running to the degree Corpus Christi has, municipal leaders across the country will be watching for the results from the assorted experiments being conducted in this wireless laboratory on the Texas coast.

"We have this new way of connecting without using wires," city manager Skip Noe says. "The applications are limited only by our imagination."

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