How Wireless Technologies are enabling the high-tech community of a Midwestern County
Michigan’s Oakland County, situated just northwest of Detroit, like much of the industrial Midwest, has been buffeted by economic shifts in manufacturing, caused by outsourcing and globalization.
To help its citizens - both businesses and residents - county executives are thinking beyond the traditional measures of education and training. They have embarked on an unusual and visionary effort. In conjunction with a local telecommunications provider, the county is facilitating the deployment of a wireless mesh network to make the county more attractive to business. Not the manufacturing businesses that sustained it in the 20th century, but rather those poised for growth in the 21st century. Simultaneously, the network - which is currently in the early stages of deployment - will provide the foundation for new wireless applications for municipal services and public safety, and offer wireless access to residents, in some cases without charge.
News@Cisco spoke to Oakland County’s deputy county executive and CIO, Phil Bertolini, about how the wireless effort will help diversify, grow, and stabilize the economy and generate greater opportunities for businesses and citizens.
What is your goal for the “Wireless Oakland” project?
Phil Bertolini: We actually have multiple goals. First, the completed network will make the concept of pervasive computing a reality. Rather than being tethered to a home or office computer, users can gain access to information anywhere, whether they need directions to a restaurant or real time inventory figures to provide to a customer while on a sales call.
We also want to blanket Oakland County with wireless Internet access. The Internet is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s become a have-to-have. We’re looking forward to a time when they are no printed encyclopedias, no printed telephone books - everything will be on the Internet, and it will be imperative that all citizens have access. That’s why we’re making wireless access available for free to all residents, businesses and visitors in Oakland County. Wireless Oakland will level the playing field for those citizens who may not be able to afford Internet access, but still have just as much need for the information available.
What makes this effort so unusual?
Phil Bertolini: We are using it as a way to change county government, in two ways. We want to attract business to Oakland County, but we want different businesses than those that sustained us in the 20th century. Our county executive, L. Brooks Patterson, commissioned a report from his economic development staff to determine the top ten sectors of the economy of the future - industries like nanotechnology and alternative fuels - which revealed that 60 percent of companies in those industries had no corporate presence in the United States. We’re using our wireless access, among other factors, to court those businesses, which have already brought approximately $900 million worth of economic impact to the county. We believe that going forward, the fact that we have wireless access throughout the county will be a key differentiation for companies looking to establish facilities.
We also see Wireless Oakland as a boon to other businesses, especially small ones. They don’t have the resources of big corporations. They can use the wireless Internet to access hosted applications online, so they can get up and running without spending a lot of money on technology. Wireless gives small businesses more flexibility.
Finally, we want to change the relationship between our citizens and the government. I started with the county as a tax assessor back in 1988, and in those days, people would come in and see us at a counter. Now much of the information they need is online. Technology provides a transparency that makes the services we provide and the inner workings of the government visible to the citizen. They can find what they need without being transferred on the phone or being forced to visit different departments.
What is the business model for Wireless Oakland?
Phil Bertolini: This is different than most municipal wireless installations that are in the news these days. We’re looking at providing wireless access in a completely different way - we’re not owning, operating, or funding the network. We’re simply facilitating it, knocking down the hurdles to deployment. For instance, we convinced the 61 cities and villages in the county to waive all permit fees for access to public assets, such as street lights where transmission equipment will hang. We’re also waiving rights to any revenue from the system. In fact, the county, in combination with local governments, will be supporting the system because we’ll be consuming applications such as wireless meter reading, video surveillance, and offering wireless access to our mobile municipal work force.
MichTel, the telecommunications provider that put forth the winning bid, is raising private capital for the deployment, working with companies such as Cisco Systems, which is providing the mesh network equipment, and Johnson Controls as an application integrator.
There are several revenue streams. At the lowest access speeds, 128K upstream and downstream, the service is free. If people want greater speeds, the costs increase incrementally - 512K is $19.95 per month, and higher speeds up to $39.95 per month. There will also be advertising revenue from companies that want to promote themselves on the home page where citizens log in.
MichTel has calculated that the system will be financially feasible if 5% of the county’s households use the free service, and if 2-1/2% of households or businesses purchase access. We’ve exceeded our goal for free access six fold, and we’re halfway to our goal on the paid service. The projections were intentionally conservative because they wanted to see if it would work. I can imagine anywhere from 20 to 30% of our citizens using it in the next five years.
But don’t you run the risk of encountering capacity issues?
Phil Bertolini: No. That’s the great part about the mesh technology we’re using. It’s built for use by the masses, that is, a great number of people such as the size we want to serve. The mesh technology Cisco is using provides enough capacity for beyond our projected numbers, and it allows the use of the 802.11 chips that come in nearly every device available in the market today. This gives Wireless Oakland users access to wireless broadband, without forcing them to pay as much as $80 for cellular broadband cards. That cost limits the number of people who adopt the technology, which artificially helps the telecom company handle capacity issues. Our goal is to serve as many people as possible, and even if it’s wildly successful, Cisco continues to evolve its products and technologies to maintain and increase network capacity.
How does wireless technology help take the county into the future?
Phil Bertolini: Many people in our county have been able to earn a good living in manufacturing with only a high school diploma. As those jobs go away, they need to retrain for new jobs, or they leave. Wireless Oakland is a great way to give them the opportunity to get online and learn more about jobs. It’s also important for the education of schoolchildren in the county. If they need more access to the Internet for their homework, they can now get it at home. Free wireless means no one is left behind.
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