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September 01, 2007

Muni-Wireless is Dead! Long Live Community-Based Portfolios of Rich Application Wireless Services

(The following blog (as always) reflect my personal views and may not reflect the views or position of Case Western Reserve University or OneCommunity.Org)

It was only a matter of time.

Chicago canceled its city hall issued muni-wi-fi project.

San Francisco’s deal with Earthlink championed by Mayor Gavin Newsom is officially dead.

Houston’s city hall project is on the rocks.

Milwaukee’s project is in the emergency room.

Toledo’s city hall debacle with wi-fi has been well documented.

The list goes on. Of course, there are some good news stories. Philadelphia’s project has caught flight and its first mover status will probably give the city of brotherly love more time to get the effort right sized. Google’s philanthropy has made a difference in the Silicon Valley metropolitan area.

For more than three years I have attempted to articulate how and why City-hall based (or legislatively directed) wi-fi deployments face nearly insurmountable sets of challenges. Let’s start with the reality that there is no sustainable business case. To be sure, there is a broad public policy imperative to provide capacity to the public to be able to access the Internet. There are profound and compelling services and priorities that demand that the public be able to access services in their community centers, health care and legal aid clinics, neighborhood churches, coffee shops, public parks, schools, and libraries. But the failure and near certain demise of the first wave of city-hall driven muni-wireless projects can’t come too soon.

The DNA of the Internet is distributed. Centralized power, hierarchies, and authority, all qualities of the 19th and 20th century vision of the role of City Hall are no longer immutable forces in the Internet age. Indeed, the Internet has relatively little respect for centralized authority and the formidable forms of power that followed. The causalities of these new realities include a lot more than the muni-wireless movement which imagined that power to the people could be delivered through the leverage that the City could bring to bear on civil society and the vendor community. Free wireless for all, care of the omnipotent and patronizing largesse of City Hall (or even more audacious simply free wireless for all, because we are City Hall).

To be sure, there are exceptions. First movers like Philadelphia. Corporate largesse like New Orleans and Intel or San Jose and Mountain View with Google are examples. I am never one to under estimate local politics and/or the role of charismatic leadership.

As the first generation of muni-wi-fi’s unbounded enthusiasm comes to an end, it’s time to redouble efforts in order to stay focused on the ever growing need to improve the quality of life and opportunity for American citizens in the 21st century. Access to the Internet today is nothing less than a moral imperative. The portfolio of education, health, human capital development, culture literacy opportunities enabled by the Internet is every bit as important and potentially transformative a public policy arena as the 1944 GI Bill that exposed 7.8 million soldiers (by 1956) black and white alike to the opportunities afforded by higher education. It’s not simply a 21st century equivalent rural electrification plan, although that would be important in and of itself. Today, access to the Internet is a necessary but insufficient condition for 21st century literacy,

The most promising future for wireless services in the public interest can be expected to come from community-based, cross-platform, application-rich portfolios of services that begin with a broad commitment to, recognition of, and support for the self-organizing principles of the Internet in general, and in particular, the new generation of so-called Web 2.0 applications based on user-generated content. To this end, rather than being informed by a model of a municipal power plant lighting up the entire region’s wireless internet needs, I think we should embrace the internet-based model of regenerative power plants, woven into the fabric of the community’s geographically distributed institutions, including, but emphatically not limited to those of a City Hall or a County office. To be clear, City Hall and County engagement represents a critical node in the architecture of a successful metropolitan or regional connected community plan. The resulting multi-nodal architecture reflects a scalable technical solution, deep hooks into the distributed and multi-faceted needs of the community, a business model that makes scale doable (based on a multi-anchor tenant model), and finally a governance model that positions a broad coalition of community-based partners to commit to work together on using this new, 21st century platform to address both short term as well as longer terms needs of and policy priorities of many different communities across the region. Take the aggregate needs and interests of a region’s schools, libraries, museums, health care clinics and research facilities, universities, parks and recreation facilities, non-profits and multi-tiered government agencies and related facilities (from utilities, public safety, welfare, to City Hall). This is a powerful base from which to build technical solutions based on a distributed network model. In the United States, on average, more than 75 percent of all of the population works for or routinely uses the services from among this collection of ‘public agencies’.

From both a technical and business model, sustainable tiered wireless services starts not with an RFP for wireless radios and access points but rather with the fiber optical plant/grid connecting community stakeholders. The community’s asset inventory is not only about light polls and roof access. Cities and counties, along with the community’s key institutions, have fiber assets, tower assets, rights of way, and most important a collective technical engineering knowledge asset that if harnessed provides competitive advantage and the enabling platform for the social engineering that follows. The wireless infrastructure in a muni-wi-fi deployment needs to tie-in into and be backhauled through core wired services. The undergirding of a metropolitan service or regional wireless offering is every bit as an important an architecture and business consideration as debating wireless mesh, WiMax, or next generation WiFi (802.11n). Unfortunately, the early lessons from the first wave of the muni-wireless world has largely ignored this challenge and ignores the opportunity of building out and owning a fiber plant that serves to connect all these public sector organizations. Not only are community-based regional optical networks the key to creating true and meaningfully value, these networks position those communities who invest in the time and resource to architect, build, and operate their own optical networks to be positioned to shape their own destinies in the 21 century. Data services, telephone, video, presence, and mobile services can all be run off of the core community network. Wireless connectivity and the layering of wireless services is simply a tier in the overall network design that extends access and provides people who use the wireless build out for mobile services that are secure, simple to use, and over time, will quickly become digital air. With a multi-anchor strategy enabled through the hundreds of community subscribers to a regional community network, universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, clinics, community centers, and yes, city and county buildings, can extend tiered wireless access through a coordinated technical architecture that mirrors the coordination associated with the wired plant. The services and experiences of a mobile society will become second nature and a basic entitlement that future generations will look back on and ask how earlier generations survived without them.

This multi-anchor strategy for tiered wireless services layered on top of thousands of route miles of community owned fiber characterizes the continuous effort underway in Northeast Ohio through the leadership of OneCommunity (formerly known as OneCleveland) since 2002. A wireless strategy grounded in community needs for health care education, 21st century skills development, economic development, enabling collaboration in the research domain, better coordinated electronic medical record efforts, community center technology centers, exposure to the aesthetic qualities of music, dance, and arts, and more efficient services from our various government service providers continues to roll out not only in Greater Cleveland but active efforts underway in Akron, and growing interest in Youngstown and Mahoning County. The connected community approach of OneCommunity differentiates our approach from the Asian centralized planning model of five year plans directed by government and the European experience of the deliberate use of regulatory instruments to build out national broadband infrastructure (with or without private sector involvement). Our experience in Northeast Ohio presents a uniquely American opportunity (in the absence of any national broadband framework) to weave together a quilt of public-private partnerships to not only build out but to systematically development application portfolios that are replicable and scalable in communities across the region, the state, and broader eco-systems like, for example, the Great Lakes Basin.

OneCommunity’s experience and expertise is not only apparent in its technical architecture to provide ultra broadband connectivity and access to miles and miles of wireless connectivity centered around libraries, schools, universities, community centers, and health care facilities. The growing portfolio of solutions and applications is positively impacting many of our greatest challenges and some of our most important opportunities. Just this week, the Cleveland Clinic, under the leadership of Toby Cosgrove committed another $2m to connect some 700,000 school-aged children in more than 800 schools throughout NEOhio (on top of the 120 or so schools that are already connected in Cleveland through previous investments by the Cleveland Clinic). The goal, to support health, science and math education directly from the Civic Engagement curriculum efforts of the Cleveland Clinic to classrooms throughout the 4 million or so 18 county region of NEOhio. Leaders in the Columbiana County have made multi-million dollars investments with OneCommunity to support local economic development and education efforts leveraging fiber and wireless services. Just this week the Cuyahoga County Commissioners made a $250,000 investment in OneCommunity in support of its work in the area of economic development While there is much much more work to be done in NEOhio, OneCommunity has captured the imagination and the precious cycles of our region’s most forward looking institutional partners whose senior leaders form the governance body of OneCommunity. The Board leads strategic direction along with input from our technical advisory committee (http://www.onecleveland.org/about/about.aspx?id=266). Even after many phases in its evolution, OneCommunity's operating model remains committed to private-public partnership with technical design, build out, support, and operation being performed largely by local and national private sector technology partners working together with OneCommunity’s public sector solutions architects. The solutions architects who form OneCommunity’s core staffing efforts are experts in subject matter domains like health care, education, museums, public broadcasting, research, and economic development.

The OneCommunity model will continue to evolve and mature. Our commitment to cross boundary activities that create synergies among community institutional practioners will continue to be one of our key informing practices. Focusing on a solutions portfolio that attends to the highest community priorities remains another key element in our DNA. The effort at social engineering by bringing often times competing or recalcitrant players into a common effort to meet the broader social good for the community is another aspirational quality to OneCommunity. Finally, OneCommunity will remain committed to creating a new model of engaging private sector entrepreneurs as equal partners with public sector stakeholders in creating a coalition committed to the re-imagining and re-inventing of our communities in the 21st century by leveraging technology to create social and commercial value by attending to the articulated priorities of the community.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
OneCommunity Board Member
Cleveland, OH
Labor Day Weekend, 2007

Posted by lsg8 at September 1, 2007 11:50 AM and tagged

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