by CIO Staff

Municipal Wi-Fi and Mesh Networks Focus on Safety not Convenience

Feb 15, 20077 mins

If you give any thought to municipal Wi-Fi networks, you probably imagine something like the Olney neighborhood portal pilot in Philadelphia. Conceived as a way to merge digital inclusion with local content (“digital inclusion” is the new, shorter term for “bridging the digital divide”), its civic goals are to motivate inner-city young adults into a lifelong appreciation of learning. As Judith Miller, president of NinthWave Media, described during the W2i Digital Cities Convention in Tempe, Ariz., the Olney portal provides relevant local news, links to neighborhood events and e-government agencies, school district information, and a word of the day.

The Olney project is a heartwarming success, and slated to expand to other areas of Philadelphia, but it’s no longer precisely typical. Judging by the presentations at the W2i meeting, municipal governments are expanding beyond end-user community support to enable public Internet access (in which Tempe itself was a pioneer) to roles that are less customer-facing. Among them are telemedicine, public safety, transportation and emergency response. One reason: It’s easier to get funding for those projects, and to create measurable metrics for success.

Mouse Calls

For example, the Tucson city government is creating a medical and first responder network by connecting hospitals with the paramedics in ambulances. A paramedic can use voice, video and data to communicate with a trauma doctor in the hospital emergency room, so she can assist the patient during the critical minutes before the ambulance gets to the ER door.

The test phase of this mobility project was completed in October 2006, during which an ambulance was able to transmit vital signs to the hospital while traveling 15 miles across Speedway Boulevard. (“We discovered that slowing down was worse [for transmission rates] than going faster,” admitted Francisco Leyva, COT project manager for the city of Tucson.) The initial phase is set to launch this quarter.

Tucson already had the network infrastructure in place; it was a side effect of the city upgrading its traffic lights. So, while only four ambulances are equipped so far, the 205 node radios will eventually expand to 419 traffic signals in the city of 225 square miles. The project will also expand to connect the medical system with police and fire departments, to the water management system (for well-monitoring data) and to building inspectors.

Another telemedicine project, also in Arizona, exists to facilitate access for diabetes patients. The Amado Wi-Fi project aims to treat and educate people in rural areas, such as Amado, 40 miles south of Tucson, and Tuba City, on the Navajo reservation in the state’s northeast. One way this was made possible was that the Arizona Telecommunications & Information Council had “lit up” the Interstate corridor between Tucson and the Mexican border as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) emergency response system. Using a mobile exam room with Wi-Fi capability, patients can speak with doctors, and have a retinal scan transmitted to a Tucson hospital to check for a diabetes-related eye disease.

All Aboard

The Department of Homeland Security was also involved in funding the mesh project for the San Diego North County Transit District. The DHS grant was to harden security at bridges, grade crossings and so on, largely because the I-5 interstate is the main corridor between Los Angeles and points south. The mesh network, managed by contractor Datel Systems, was installed along the 42-mile-long commuter rail that runs between Oceanside and San Diego, using 802.11g wireless connectivity within right of way and at all train stations for work crews. “It’s quite a challenge to keep a VPN connection on a train going 80 miles per hour,” commented Datel’s Larry Piland.

There’s a security command station at the first rail station and the start of Coaster commuter rail line, with no other viable infrastructure in the right of way (no power, no telecommunications). Datel ended up mounting its own poles with solar panels, though that’s still problematic; on the coastline, Piland said, they’re lucky to get four or five hours of full sun each day.

Using CCTV (analog video) equipment, security personnel can watch the bridges and other vulnerable sites; that’s not trivial, given that college kids like to party in such remote locations, and one bridge was set on fire during a beer bash. The project has successfully demonstrated mobile mesh with rail vehicles at 90-plus mph, and seamlessly integrated with existing CCTV infrastructures. The mesh network was designed for security requirements but, Piland explained, is flexible enough to handle commercial, telemetry and customer amenity needs.

The role of wireless municipal networks is also being expanded by police forces. One obvious benefit of this technology is its ability to improve communication between personnel, such as during a concert in Lakeland, N.J. In the community’s pilot project at a music festival in September 2006, explained Patrolman Robert DeSimone, the small police department improved traffic flow and gave the event commander the ability to view the entire event from one location. In their case, the Wi-Fi access points are mounted on top of the patrol cars, so officers can use instant messaging, license tag identification and video capture (which also helps for a “video lineup” in which a suspect is shown to a robbery victim: “Is this the guy?”). “It’s saving us money, and letting us provide better protection,” said DeSimone.

The police department in Rockland, Ill., is also using cameras with a mesh network—in a much more dangerous area. Using a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a 2,000-unit housing project with a crime history is now being monitored over the Internet. The 16 IP cameras—mounted in a bulletproof enclosure with the wireless mesh nodes, flashing police light and backup battery—create a visible deterrent for criminal activity and give the local police force a mobile video system. This also puts in place the infrastructure to provide free Wi-Fi access for residents.

The end result is that the housing project has been homicide-free for more than a year; loitering and graffiti have been eliminated; and vehicle crime, burglaries and drug dealing have decreased. As a side effect, the video monitoring has increased staff productivity; instead of spending two or three hours to collect evidence, the digital video can be compiled in 20 minutes.

Lessons Learned

Every presenter stressed that the key to a successful municipal deployment is to get all the stakeholders involved early in the process. Otherwise, the project will be stymied by really stupid stuff. One town in Colorado had to get each of 1,100 access points to go through a separate review process to ensure that the boxes matched the approved architecture. In the San Diego rail project, the initial intent was to put a camera in the train engine—until the camera was pointed at the conductor, which generated trouble with the union.

These projects can be immensely complex because there are so many parties involved, because expectations are often set too high, and because so much of the technology is new and ever-changing. But, cautions Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, the technology uncertainty shouldn’t keep municipalities from participating. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough. “Get off the technology train and get onto a platform,” he urged.

Esther Schindler