Why Wireless Cities Matter
Original Article Published in
OhMyNews, South Korea
November 23, 2005
©2006 Gregory Daigle
Wireless collaborative review of architectural design
©2005 Benjamin R. Lindau
Part 1 - The urban lifestyle and community collaboration
There are dozens of cities in the U.S. and other countries employing or planning to employ Wi-Fi technology in citywide hot spots or clouds. Internationally these include Taipei, Perth, Hong Kong, Pretoria, Cebu City, Auckland, Adelaide, Zamora (Spain), Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Brussels. Domestic cities include Seattle, San Francisco, Anaheim, Minneapolis, Portland (OR), Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dayton, Los Angeles, Spokane, Lexington, and several smaller cities such as Bowling Green, Cerritos (CA), LaFayette and others. Even Macedonia is planning a wireless network covering over 1,000 square miles of territory ... essentially making it a Wi-Fi country.
Wireless is different from other broadband services. It is not just about “wide pipes”. Wireless is a commons and among its most important potential impacts is development of community collaboration. Wireless makes possible better communications between it's citizens – at home ... at work ... and at leisure.
The first Wireless Cities ... Community Context conference was held this past October to look past e-government services and explore how wireless can be used to enhance community collaboration. Speakers included representatives from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Jambo Networks, Gather.com, Digital Access Project, MNartists.org, the cities of Portland and Minneapolis, and the Public Technology Institute, among others. This article reviews some of the key discussion points brought out in that conference.
Wi-Fi operates in the unregulated part of the spectrum as an information service. It's not the fastest technology. Fiber to the home has greater bandwidth. Even DSL and cable modem are faster. But wireless has low installation costs making it a disruptive technology competitive with legacy operators like DSL and cable; and its services can potentially be offered at rates that will appeal to the digitally disenfranchised.
In establishing wireless networks each local government focuses its services upon the business of government – first responders, schools, property revenues and basic services. However, some cities with foresight are gathering input from residents on community-centered ideas and directions for wireless. These ideas include impacts in the arts, community projects and create a richer mix of social interconnectedness through wireless.
Plans to offer municipal wireless as a free city amenity haven't worked out very well. Wireless Philadelphia started as a free public amenity, but last summer they joined the ranks of cities such as Portland and Minneapolis in establishing public/private partnerships. Public/private partnerships don't require the city to own or maintain the network. It is owned, installed and maintained by a private vendor that also bills subscribers. The city often serves as the anchor tenant. From the city's perspective it's a utility.
Wi-Fi is considered an urban technology because it requires a high density of subscribers to pay for the numerous radio "hanging assets" attached to powered street light poles and traffic signals. A high enough density of assets allows for mesh networks or clouds that completely cover an area, in contrast to strings of isolated hot spots.
Wi-Max is a similar urban technology that covers a city, but uses a “big stick” transmitter (similar to a television tower) and local tower receivers (similar to cell phone towers). The barriers for Wi-Max are lack of consumer recognition, the large established base of Wi-Fi users and lack of mobility across a wide range of devices.
Mobility matters to a city's CIO. Mobility provides a means for consolidating and improving upon a wide variety of government services. Wireless IP (internet protocols) improve current analog radio communications between dispatch and first responders. Gas meters, water meters and parking meters can be read automatically. Add to this capability the flexibility of wireless traffic cameras, transit schedule updates, amber alerts and uploading files to/from city workers in the field.
Wireless fits the CIO's mandate to provide dynamic e-government services within lowered budgets. That’s why RFPs and contracts for wireless services focus only on essential services and cost savings. But does a city’s vision for wireless always have to be attached to essential services? Why not also leverage it for other purposes as determined by city residents?
Will unwiring a city change social discourse? How will it impact volunteerism? The arts? The disenfranchised? What the Wireless Cities conference made clear is that it's not so much the technology that determines the eQoL (e-quality of life) ... but what you're going to do with it.
Wireless is about enhancing current lifestyle with a richer mix. McDonald’s offers Wi-Fi in some of its parking lots. Kids, already hanging out, are making parking lots a teen wireless venue. They have found this service to be good and make it part of their lifestyle. But instead of leaving it in the hands of commercial property owners like McDonald’s or Starbuck's, why not offer it as part of the civic lifestyle made possible by local government?
There's something positive about a local government using wireless to capture the attention of young people who have never before connected (at least in a positive way) with government. Wireless networks can provide access where the people are. But it’s the responsibility of the neighborhoods to engage young people with social applications mirroring the key descriptors of their lives: social ... mobile ... and remixed.
Wireless could be thought of as just another technology for transmitting bits. But it's more. It provides more ubiquity for access, location-based collaboration and greater opportunity for content creation without boundaries. If the fat digital pipes of fiber-to-the-home, DSL and cable are now becoming a tool for on-demand television and film content from corporate sources, then wireless is about creating your own content.
Content rules ... or at least matters. Prosumers make new creative remixes of not only music but also ring tones and home movies with tools such as iDVD and GarageBand. Add commentary to your neighbor's video blog on local pollution issues. Use Jambo to cooperatively make plans for a block party. Interactively chat about the layout of a neighborhood truck garden while standing in the garden. Use Google Earth to plan the route for a political demonstration as you walk it. Request the assistance of people around you at the lakeshore to help you collect samples for your high school water quality project. Bring you laptop to an experimental theater so that you can upload your vacation photos as scenery backdrops projected during the play.
Content (and creativity) rules!
... in Part 2, Urban creativity.
This article was developed with the assistance of Prof. Brad Hokanson of the University of Minnesota.
Bryan Nunez and moderator Amit Asaravala
©2006 Greg Daigle