Local governments around the US are using Wi-Fi to provide broadband service for mobile police and fire units, as well as wireless public Internet access over wide areas. While there are reasons why such city-wide hot zones may not be so popular in Europe, the idea is taking off in the US.

Spokane, Washington is using its Wi-Fi zone to provide public Internet access - as well as broadband service to public safety units - in a 100 block area. The city of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, located 22 miles north of Albuquerque, has turned on the first phase of a dual-use public safety and Internet access network that will eventually cover 103 square miles.

Both cities view their Wi-Fi networks as key economic development tools at a time when high-speed Internet access is considered a must for most businesses.

Cook County, Illinois, which includes the city of Chicago, has started the first phase of a massive Wi-Fi-based public safety network that will eventually cover all 940 square miles of the county. It will provide mobile data service at speeds up to 54 Mbit/s to public safety users in Chicago and 128 other towns and cities.

These three local government entities envision using a number of methods to provide the Wi-Fi access, including mesh networks, high-gain antennas or a combination of tall towers and an extensive fibre-optic backbone. The goal is to turn Wi-Fi, a technology designed for short-range communications of between 100 and 300 feet, into the building blocks of metropolitan-area or wide-area networks.

Spokane does deals with local vendors
Spokane's downtown hot zone is a mile long and a third of a mile wide and is covered by five 802.11b Wi-Fi base stations and high-gain antennas from Vivato (which has its research and development division in Spokane). The Vivato antennas, which use phased-array technology to electronically "steer" narrow beams to individual users, have a range of four miles, said Joel Hobson, network services manager for the city.

Public safety users access the network through a VPN connection, and Spokane has equipped roughly 50 vehicles, primarily fire trucks with rugged mobile computers from locally based Itronix (formerly known as Husky), to access the network, Hobson said. Spokane eventually wants to equip between 1,000 and 1,250 police, fire and emergency services vehicles with Itronix computers. Spokane hopes to eventually extend the Wi-Fi hot zone citywide, he said, although there is no time frame for doing so.

When public safety vehicles roam out of the Wi-Fi hot zone they automatically switch to a cellular data network using iCare mobility software from Itronix, which is based on the company's mobile network roaming software. Backhaul from the Vivato base stations is provided by a local Internet service provider, OneEightyNetworks, which has fibre-optic networks running at speeds ranging from 155 Mbit/s to 2.4 Gbit/s, Hobson said. Robin Toth, Spokane's economic development project manager, said consumers will receive free wireless Internet access for two hours per day. By the fourth quarter of the year, broadband provider OneEightyNetworks will make additional hours of Wi-Fi access available through purchase of a day pass or a monthly subscription.

Toth said the hot zone is seen as an economic development tool to attract businesses seeking cities with a robust telecommunications infrastructure. The hot zone, which will cost $50,000 to $75,000 to develop and deploy, has already started to pay off in terms of publicity, which attracts business, Toth said.

Rio Rancho - a blanket with 802.16 backhaul
The city of Rio Rancho, which is home to an Intel chip plant, also views its planned 103-square-mile hot zone as an economic development tool, according to city manager Jim Palenick. Rio Rancho wants to be known as a city with "cutting-edge technology" to lure new businesses, including high-tech film and television postproduction studios seeking state of New Mexico funding and tax incentives for movies and TV programs, he said. The dual-use network is also designed to support public safety users, schools and hospitals, Palenick said. Lisa Schimmel, Rio Rancho's IT manager, said the city is still developing its plans for the network, which won't be fully deployed until December. She expects that mobile police units as well as code enforcement officers will be able to access the network using rugged notebook computers equipped with Wi-Fi cards.

Intel helped Rio Rancho evaluate bidders for the dual-use network, Palenick said, and last month the city tapped Usurf America in Colorado Springs to build it. Ken Upcraft, Usurf's president, said his company intends to blanket the city with a mesh Wi-Fi network that provides service under the 802.11a/b/g standards. The 802.11a standard provides 54 Mbit/s in the 5 GHz band; 802.11b offers 11 Mbit/s in the 2.4 GHz band; and 802.11g offers 54 Mbit/s in the 2.4 GHz band

Usurf intends to install about 600 of its own design 802.11a/b/g access points in Rio Rancho, with a wireless backhaul based on the 802.16 (WiMax family) standard between major mesh nodes, Upcraft said. In a mesh network, the access points communicate with each other in a "multihop" sequence, with the wired backhaul at the edge of the mesh network or subnetwork. The wireless backhaul will terminate at a wired DS-3 (43 Mbit/s) connection to the Internet, Upcraft said. Communications for city agencies will be handled over a firewalled network with 128-bit encryption, Upcraft said.

Usurf has a tiered pricing structure in Rio Rancho for public access that is competitive with DSL or cable modem service, Upcraft said. Rates start at $29.95 a month for 256 kbit/s service and go up to $49.95 a month for 1 Mbit/s service.

As for Cook County, it has ambitious plans to use Wi-Fi hot spots as the basis of a public safety network that will eventually support mobile users over 940 square miles, according to Katherine Maras O'Leary, the county's chief information officer. O'Leary said she received $12.1 million in funding for the network infrastructure, which will include about 150 802.11b/g access points, which should provide 95 percent coverage for mobile units operating in the county.

Dudley Donelson, the county's deputy director for IT, said Cook County expects to boost the range of the Wi-Fi access points by mounting them on 200ft tall towers owned by the county. This height should provide a 3-mile range for the access points, Donelson said. Backhaul from each access point would be provided by a countywide fibre-optic network, which operates at data rates as high as 2.4 Mbit/s. Cook County has already equipped 80 police tactical squad vehicles with rugged computers hooked up to Cisco 3200 mobile routers. Besides supporting Wi-Fi connections, these routers also have plug-in cards that can communicate with cellular or satellite networks, ensuring they can always communicate if they get out of range of a Wi-Fi tower, Donelson said.

O'Leary said she expects that 2,000 mobile public safety vehicles in Cook Country will eventually be able to access the Wi-Fi network. Donelson said all of the Wi-Fi access points should be installed by next year.