Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Business Case for Silicon Valley’s Muni WiFi Network

Friday's announcement of a Silicon Valley-wide municipal broadband network is definitely an expanded vision of muni WiFi, though Morrow County, Oregon (cited in the book) represents an actual deployment of similar size. The states of Rhode Island, similar in size to the Valley, and Maine plan equally bold border-to-border WiFi infrastructure deployments.

The most common questions in coverage of the Valley announcement were “what’s the business case?” and “how are they going to do it?” Today I tackle the business case. Wednesday I’ll have a go at the “how” challenge.

The most direct ROI can result from cities and counties using the network to wireless-enable mobile government workforces, mobile physical assets and buildings. This ROI not only can justify many times over any money that governments contribute to the effort, but also can be used to drive the network’s use for social and economic development programs.

At the tip of the ROI iceberg, every government has several departments similar to Philly’s License and Inspections that can save an hour or more per worker a day by replacing paper-driven taks with wireless apps. Instead of wasting time going back and forth to the office to pick up, complete and get new paper forms, workers in the field gather, process and access data faster, accurately and more efficiently. Wireless access to resources also lets them make more and better decisions while in the field.

Taking the task audit proscribed in “Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless” uncovers a range of government operations involving mobile and office workers that can be streamlined or eliminated with wireless. Besides the productivity ROI, muni WiFi does this at faster data speeds and for significantly less money than carrier data wireless services.

The ROI of covering your assets

Every city and county owns a staggering number of mobile assets that it must track, access and manage. Everything from vehicles to office, emergency and repair equipment. It’s proven that wireless asset tracking and giving workers mobile asset management apps produce millions in ROI through theft or loss prevention plus more productive use of assets and the people who maintain them.

Cities such as Houston and Corpus Christi have also realized that wireless asset management also increases revenues. Using the technology for automated meter reading for city-run utilities and operating smart parking meters are just two areas where cities can collect more money faster and with greater efficiency.

Then we have the most glaring deficiency in emergency response operations. The lack of communication technology interoperability between departments and agencies that respond to a major crisis, both in the immediate aftermath and in the months following, causes much suffering. Muni WiFi, appropriately planned and implemented, will save lives and alleviate a lot of unnecessary misery. After Katrina hit, what technology was back online first, making a difference?

Closing the divide

Shifting to social issues such as the digital divide, which is surprisingly prevalent in parts of Silicon Valley, muni WiFi is a potent tool that produces ROI of a different sort. Cities and their stakeholders can use it to deliver programs that close the divide while making disadvantage citizens more productive members of society.

Look at what groups in Philly such as the Norris Square Civic Association, the People’s Emergency Center and Lutheran Children and Family Services did during just the pilot project phase of muni WiFi deployment. Here you start to see the potential. These groups are using technology, content and programs that leverage the network to close the divide.

The Philly School District already used their own WiFi networks to deliver nationally-recognized innovative education programs that raised the quality of education for kids of all economic strata. Now the District plans to help the city use its WiFi network to bring parents directly into these programs as partners in their children’s education.

Improving your business communities

On the economic development side, this network will create additional ROI. Review my previous post on the business impact of muni WiFi to see some of the general business impact. But wait, there’s more!

In the Valley you also have an ecosystem of startups, established technology powerhouses, venture capitalists and a plethora of supporting businesses and services. This ecosystem functions on the power of business networking, both within itself and with other parts of the country and the world.

Can you imagine what happens when you weave this networking dynamic into a high-speed, low-cost WiFi network that facilitates not only people-to-people interaction, but also machine-to-machine and machine-to-people? Think about all those creative business and technology minds down there once they start considering the possibilities.

I always laugh when I hear some incumbent telco or cable company whine about how these networks are going to stifle innovation. First off, if you have more billions than anyone except maybe Bill Gates and you can’t be innovative in the face of a $5000 WiFi transmitter, you deserve to be put out of business. But you watch the Valley. They’re going to show you some innovation with WiFi that rocks the free market world.


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