Cut Loose: City of Corpus Christi Goes Wireless

May 2005, Government Fleet - Feature

by Fiona Soltes

Not so long ago, a group of top managers brainstormed uses for a “wireless cloud” over Corpus Christi, Texas.The conversations began with the idea of installing an automated meter-reading (AMR) system, cutting down on personnel costs and workers’ compensation claims. But it didn’t take long for the wheels to begin turning: a citywide “Wi-Fi,” or wireless fidelity program, could present endless options. Just for starters, it could bring fingerprint identification technology and full-screen color photos into police patrol cars, provide streaming video from disaster scenes to fire departments and emergency medial services, and offer real-time access for building inspections.“It’s great fun, and very interesting, when you look at the possibilities for something like this,” says Leonard Scott, business unit manager of Corpus Christi’s municipal information systems department. “There are huge implications for society in the way we function.”The Town Without Wires
The Wi-Fi system, which is currently being installed but won’t completely be in place until spring of 2006, involves a series of shoebox-sized units attached to streetlights, with several to a mile. The units turn the city into a wireless network, allowing those with Web-enabled devices like cell phones and laptops the chance to link up and transmit data without a landline. The deal came together with the help of Public Technology Inc., a national non-profit technology research and development organization that works with local governments across the country.Bert Williams, vice president of marketing at Tropos Networks, the equipment supplier for the Corpus Christi project, said the city is “on the forefront of a rapidly growing trend.”“To date, we have about 125 customers, and I estimate that at least half of those are municipalities,” says Williams. “And much of that activity has been in the past 12 to 18 months.”A Self-Automated System
In general, Williams says the Wi-Fi systems run about $50,000 per square mile for installation. In Corpus Christi, City Manager George “Skip” Noe says they’ve spent about $1 million so far, and the latest estimate for the finished project was “in the $6 million range.”Even so, it wasn’t a tough sell for anyone involved. Take the potential savings from the AMR portion of the project. Rather than have employees who have to physically go out to read meters, personnel will be centralized at another location, and reading devices attached to the meters will automatically transmit the numbers. Each meter will transmit twice a day (rather than simply being read once a month), virtually eliminating human error, states Scott.“It will either give an accurate reading or none at all,” he says. Scott explains it will take about five years to install all of the reading devices, and with a typical attrition rate of about 18 months, the city doesn’t anticipate anybody losing a job through the change. Funded positions will simply be deleted over time, and those who remain will have the opportunity to move into other vacant city jobs.Wireless for Public Safety
As for other applications, Noe states that the city is currently focusing on “the low hanging fruit.”“We’re looking at things that can be done simply, things that are already done online, places where people are already sitting down entering data,” he says. One of the first projects in line, for example, is an updated building permit system, which will allow building inspectors to update information in real time.As for public safety portions of the program, wireless data itself is nothing new; the city has used it since the 1970s for simple text inquiries, such as checking a person’s criminal history or to see if an item has been stolen. These days, most officers already travel with laptops in their patrol cars.“But with a system like this,” explains Scott, “you have the added capability of instantly pulling up a full photo of a person who’s wanted.” And with fire department personnel, “you can very easily get into archives of information about building structures, and even track firefighters as they enter burning buildings,” says Scott. “You can tell where they are, in case you ever lose voice communication.”Corpus Christi’s Near Future
Also on the horizon are applications for small businesses and the general public.For example, Scott can imagine local retailers offering regional “eBay-type sites” for the sale of various items, as well as making wireless broadband free at sites like public parks and municipal buildings.One thing the city won’t do, however, is use the system to offer free universal Internet access.“We don’t want to compete with private business,” says Scott. “We’d rather become a value-added product they can offer their current customers. We will have some free hot spots, but our long-term business plan is to partner with one or more Internet providers so that they can sell the excess bandwidth to the public and we’d split the profits.”The idea is to keep it “win-win” for everyone involved, rather than presenting a threat. And if the city can make that happen, many others will certainly follow suit.“You really have to look at it as a whole,” explains Scott. “In terms of the type of things cities do, this is relatively inexpensive. And I think it will eventually become a necessity for most cities in the future. I think that, as people travel, they will expect to find wireless Internet access.” And police will expect to find photos, and firefighters will expect to see real-time video, and building inspectors will expect data to be always up-to-date.All in a day’s work - at least in Corpus Christi.

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