OKC Gets Muni Wi-Fi Right – Page 2

OKC Gets Muni Wi-Fi Right – Page 2

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Written By Eric Sandler

Nuts and bolts

Oklahoma City’s network is constructed primarily out of Tropos Networks’ equipment. “Tropos manufactured the heart of the Wi-Fi system,” says Meier. “They are the creators of what made it possible. Other vendors provided components.”

According to Meier, there are 1,200 Tropos 802.11b/g APs across the 555-square-mile area served by the network.

“They are fixed nodes,” says Meier, “and also a mobile mesh. All of the police and fire—850 of them—they can talk to each other and if any one of them can find an uplink for data then it can use that to get it up. In a rural area with ten or fifteen or twenty vehicles dealing with an incident, they can join together and create a much larger mesh. We even take it one step further and provide a mobile platform for a low-power handheld that can talk to the car and the car can take the feed upstream to the fixed network.”

“The fixed mesh are primarily 5210s and 5320s with dual radios. The mobile units are 4210s,” says Meier.

He doesn’t anticipate upgrading to 802.11n any time soon. “The network is doing what we asked it to do and we have plenty of capacity, so it’s not something we’re looking at,” he says.

Meier and his team chose Tropos after a conscientious review of all available options, including cell providers. “Tropos was one of the few people at the time that could do it. We looked at all the vendors we could find. It was an arduous process. We went into a lot of detail before choosing Tropos. We were working on this network in 2002-2003, before Wi-Fi was a gleam in most people’s eyes,” he says.

Once the planning and funding were in place, it took Meier and his team roughly two years to deploy. Currently, more than 150 applications are running over the network.

In terms of security, multiple layers are in place, including a basic VPN client along with additional layers of encryption,  and restrictions for users and devices. “There is also additional security between the devices themselves,” says Meier.

Every Wi-Fi deployment faces specific challenges related to overcoming the local terrain. In Oklahoma City, there is not much of an elevation change to worry about, but, says Meier, “we have hills and foliage. Any city—I don’t care what your geography is—you’ll have to plan how to overcome issues, like a row of 20-40-story buildings, large houses, foliage, mountains. Wee have hundreds of those types of issues. We came up with a design solution and implemented it. Fortunately. Wi-Fi is very resilient. Once you got the hang of it, you could come up with any solution for anything you’re facing.”

While a handful of other U.S. municipalities have had to cope with fears from residents about the health effects of city-wide Wi-Fi, Meier says that never came up in Oklahoma City.

“We received very few comments or concerns about health risks,” he says. “I guess it’s prevalent now, so most people are familiar with it. Very few—one or two—were worried about the network being used to spy on citizens. With video surveillance, some thought that Wi-Fi might give the ability to monitor activities.”

On the horizon

While the network is not currently being used for “digital divide” programs or Internet access for the public, Meier says that it may be put to that use at some time in the future.

“It wasn’t that we decided not to, it was that we decided our priority was to make sure it performed for its intended purpose,” says Meier. “We did not want to over extend it. It’s designed to support public access and we review that use on a regular basis. To date we have decided not to open it up. But in the future, we could address social divide issues.”

Other future applications include weather monitoring, meter reading, and traffic monitoring.

“We are working with our local University of Oklahoma climatology division,” says Meier. “They came up with an idea to use Mesonet, a weather monitoring mechanism, integrated with our Wi-Fi system to provide to the National Weather Service this level of detail of climate information immediately available. It’s the first time in the world—we can predict tornadoes, we can also protect against damage from hazardous materials release because we know which way the wind is blowing. It’s currently operational now [June 4] and will be rolling out in pieces over the next 90 days.”

Meier says the City is also considering putting some of its significant intersections online.

“It would result in a fuel savings to our citizens,” says Meier, “because of Wi-Fi, we were able to make the proposal that you could communicate with 20-30 stop lights. You can put them all online and then you can change the timing of the intersection based on traffic flow. If you have an event like a basketball game, you can get people out of the area more quickly, reducing emissions overall. I suspect it’ll be accepted, then we’ll implement the entire city in a dynamic system at a fraction of the cost of what it would be otherwise.”

Because the network is scaleable, Meier says the only limit is money. “Wi-Fi mesh is, by its nature, extremely resilient and completely scaleable. If any area suddenly develops a more intense need, we can add APs and inject more capacity,” says Meier.

As other municipal networks are failing, Meier is proud of the careful planning and patient approach his city took to its Wi-Fi endeavor. As cities that focused on providing free or cheap city-wide Wi-Fi are floundering, Meier’s network is robust, well-funded, and thriving.

“We saw those models; we preceded those models. We started before the industry started with this concept of we’d get something for nothing,” says Meier. “We didn’t have to deal with the issues the other companies had to deal with. Our Council had a vision and knew exactly what they wanted. That made it very effective for us. The model was viable from the very beginning based solidly on expectations of cost versus value of the system we were trying to create.”

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