Downtown Internet Gets a Little Hotter?

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Ran into Bob Avery, the Town’s IT Director, on Franklin St. today. Turns out he’s surveying Downtown with an eye towards deploying a small pilot program of free Internet hot spots in the near future. The pilot would use Clearwire as the high-speed wireless backhaul. The only resources needed are power and location.

I cautioned Bob not to limit his planning to publicly owned infrastructure like the old Townhall. Over the last four years I’ve spoken with more than a few Downtown business and building owners willing to provide a small chunk of space and the minimal juice for access point deployments. BrianR and I have explored using solar-powered, weather-hardened rigs, strategically meshed to cover a wide area. If the Town used this environmentally sound and quite economical approach, the only remaining requirement is a decent position to throw signal.

Speaking of signal, whatever free access is deployed Downtown should stay off the already saturated channels 1, 6 and 11.

Knowing the free access topology of Downtown like the back of my hand, I encouraged him to consider West End, with a current lack of free Wifi access points (beyond UNC’s) and high density of public gathering spots (restaurants, bars,sidewalk cafes, coffee joints, bookstores), for the initial pilot.

That’s a few of my suggestions for equipment, deployment strategy and location, what are yours?

Municipal Networking: St. Cloud Soars Above Chapel Hill

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

As longtime readers and local voters know, I’m a strong advocate for bringing community-owned information infrastructure to Chapel Hill. Simply, to create a truly free new Town Commons benefiting our citizenry.

I’ve been working the issue now for over three years – banging the drum of strategic economic stimulus, social improvement – bridging the “digital divide” – and governmental innovation.

Local naysayers, like Councilmembers Strom and Kleinschmidt, continue, at least for now, to impede a tactical approach to building up Chapel Hill’s information infrastructure.

I’m a results oriented guy. I like to think that these folks, when faced with success after success, will eventually join in and seize this cost effective opportunity to kick start a key economic driver for Chapel Hill’s healthy future.

To that end, I’ve provided example after example, here and abroad of how a municipal network catalyzes a community’s innovative drive.

Two years ago I started talking about St. Cloud, Florida’s plan to provide free and ubiquitous connectivity to their community of 8,500 households.

Sep. 11, 2006, just prior to asking Council, again, to get the muni-networking ball rolling, I posted on St. Cloud’s wildly successful six month anniversary (Municipal Wifi: St. Cloud on Cloud Nine).

“So let the naysayers and talking heads let fly, but the little secret that is secret no more is that the results of a carefully planned and deployed municipally owned system delivered free to the citizens as a public service is actually the most successful, beneficial and effective model in existence.”

So says Jonathan Baltuch, who help found MRI, a consultancy specializing in planning economic development strategies for municipalities.

March 6th, 2007 marked St. Clouds’ community-owned network’s first year anniversary.

How are they doing?

MuniWireless says One year later, St. Cloud citywide Wi-Fi network shows impressive results:

St. Cloud, Florida’s network has received so much press because it is one of the few city-funded, city-owned networks in the US and it provides free Internet access to residents and businesses. Although the city owns the network, it has outsourced operations and maintenance to HP.

Jonathan Baltuch, founder of MRI, the consultant to the city, says: It is therefore fitting that at this year’s Muniwireless conference in Dallas the Cyber Spot celebrates its first anniversary on March 5, 2007. Being a pioneer with the first municipal owned system of its kind (although dozens of other communities are following suit), the Cyber Spot was immediately the subject of attack by the incumbents who were terrified by the prospect of communities taking back their digital rights. All throughout this year, while rumors and misinformation flew across the net fueled by various dubious sources, St. Cloud went about its business of providing its citizens with a premium quality service that saved the residents millions of dollars, eliminated the digital divide and created economic, educational and social opportunities for the citizens of the community.

Another by-product of this effort is that the city collected a comprehensive database of real world statistics and system information on the network.

Baltuch adds: The uptake rate of 77% is impressive when you consider that fee-based networks are attempting to reach uptake rates of about 20%. Incumbent broadband providers of cable and DSL rarely break 30% in any area after many years in the market. If the goal is true digital inclusion then reaching 20% – 30% in a community is unacceptable. This is why municipalities should be directly involved in providing this alternative service, hopefully for free, but at minimum for an extremely low cost.

Indeed, those who say that a municipally owned broadband network can never deliver good service are simply wrong. Many of the critics of municipally owned broadband mischaracterize the networks as being run by city employees who have no experience in delivering broadband service. In reality, most cities that fund and own the network, outsource the deployment, operations and maintenance to private companies. St. Cloud’s partner is HP.

At the end of 2006, Novarum, an independent wireless testing company, surveyed cellular and Wi-Fi broadband networks across the US. They ranked St. Cloud’s network no. 1 (and the only one with 100% service availability) ahead of Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, Earthlink and many others.

Why St. Cloud must be breaking the bank to provide this level of service! Afraid not:

The Capital expense was funded through the local economic development fund. The annual operational expenses are funded through the internal savings to City operations, which exceed the annual cost of operations.

That is the same argument local advocates have been making all along.

We could’ve been St. Cloud. We could’ve, and can still be, a competitive contender in the networked world.

You think Chapel Hill is safe? St. Cloud is in Florida – too far away to snatch North Carolina mind share.

As reported in today’s MuniWireless Greenville, North Carolina rolls out downtown Wi-Fi hotzone

The size of the coverage area is 1.3 square miles (3.3 square kilometers). It encompasses City Hall and the Pitt County Courthouse. This area is home to many businesses and the town commons where concerts are held in the spring and summer.

If the city decides to roll out a network that covers the entire community the area of coverage will be 31 square miles (80 square kilometers), and the initial cost estimate is approximately $2.5 million. The cost of the test bed is $51,000. It utilizes an existing Internet connection of 6mb down and 1mb up. The systems integrator/ISP is WindChannel out of Raleigh, NC and they are installing a Nortel Networks solution using 7220 access points and a 7250 centralized controller.

Greenville.
North Carolina.
Home of East Carolina University.

Eating Chapel Hill’s lunch.

Easthom Update on Chapel Hill WiFi

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

In case you don’t subscribe to Council member Laurin Easthom’s ‘blog The Easthom Page, she has an update on some possible forward motion on implementing a municipal network.

Updated staff report on wireless with council discussion is tentative but hopeful for April 23. Such a report will be pretty inclusive and give us the staff’s full range of realistic possibilities for the council and public to consider at that time. I’ll update accordingly, or if things change.

She tagged it to her recent post on “Wifi and Economic Development”.

Thanks for the update Laurin.

Chapel Hill’s Public Forum on Information Technology

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

If you would like to see our Town use technology to more effectively address social issues, improve operational efficiencies and drive the cost of doing government business down, then make a date to attend the rescheduled Public Forum on Information Technology 7-9pm Mar. 21st, 2007.

The event will be held in the Conference Room of the Chapel Hill Public Library, 100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill [MAP].

While the invitation by “the Town of Chapel Hill to the public to offer comments and suggestions on how it can use information technology to provide more effective and efficient services” is encouraging, given the consultant-oriented agenda

The purpose of the focus group is to provide citizens an opportunity to comment on the components of an information technology environment that would assist Town government operations to provide for the effective and efficient delivery of services to the community. Receiving public input is a part of the process of developing a needs assessment, which is being developed by RHJ Associates Inc. under contract with the Town.

I’m a little concerned that this is more about checking off the “public participation” requirement than soliciting real input.

Council approved the RHJ proposal for a needs assessment [PDF] Nov. 6th, 2006.

Who is RHJ Associates, Inc.?

RHJ Associates, Inc. (RHJA), a Delaware corporation, was established in March, 2000 as a follow-on to the discontinued public sector business unit of The Network Address, Inc. (NAI), Annapolis, Maryland to continue serving the local government community. RHJA focuses on information technology issues confronting municipal governments, is managed by Robert (“Jake”) Jacobstein, formerly Vice President of Client Services of NAI’s public sector business unit, and includes other experts in fields of technology relevant to accomplish day-to-day municipal operating objectives. Upon formation of the company, RHJA expanded its services by teaming with seasoned consultants who possess depth and breadth in virtually all areas of applying technology to government operations. RHJ associates have a minimum of ten years working experience serving the local government sector. RHJA consultants offer a holistic set of services in addressing municipal technology needs. These services include strategic planning, needs assessment, telecommunication planning and design, including voice, data, video and multi-media, organizational development, project management, enterprise resource planning, vocational systems acquisition, and institutional network specification and development,. Collectively, RHJ associates have served hundreds of public entities by assisting them with their information technology challenges.

Sounds good doesn’t it? Strange thing – the only website I’ve found for them (http://rhjassociates.com/) list their address as:

1124 Ragsdale Ct.
New Port Richey, FL 34654
(301) 332-2300
(646) 225-7777 (fax)
Jake’s Email

The site is rather, ummm, elegant in its simplicity.

If there’s another site, I haven’t stumbled on it yet. This kind of appears to be a one man operation run by “Jake”. The curricula vitae of his staff, at least the staff he had in 2004 looks impressive but his proposal to Council was silent on his 2007 assistants (if any).

How did RHJ Associates get involved? Town Manager Roger Stancil.

Town Manager Roger Stancil had recommended a contract with RHJ Associates Inc., a Maryland-based municipal technology planning company which he had hired in Fayetteville, where he worked as city manager before coming to Chapel Hill in September. The company is managed by Jake Jacobstein, a former executive with The Network Address Inc.

N&O’s Jesse James DeConto, Oct. 26th, 2006

Hey, working with someone you’ve worked with before and trust is a smart idea. The no-bid $37,000 contract – not so smart.

Especially for a guy that seems not to be broadly experienced in building social networks or business systems but, instead, has focused on optimizing telecommunications.

At least that’s what he did for Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission (their hometown power company) Oct. 11th, 2006 .

Consideration of Purchase of New Telephone Switch and Related Components
Presented by: James Rose, Chief Administrative Officer Jake Jacobstein, RHJ Associates
Recommendation: Award contract to Embarq (formerly Sprint) [OUCH!]

Same for Cumberland County, Jan. 25th, 2006.

The committee discussed at length the pros and cons for the phone system being voice over IP or digital. RHJ Associates, Jake Jacobstein will attend a meeting with the Partnership staff to provide an initial consultation for what is best for the Partnership and OFRC tenants.

Or Colonial Heights, Virginia Oct. 26th, 2006

The objective is to replace the entire telephone system with a new system that increases the effectiveness of 911 PSAP systems users and the public safety service level to the citizens. The City Emergency Communications Center desires to acquire a system with a proven technical and functional design and preference will be given to Proposers that have currently installed systems that closely approximate or satisfy the City Emergency Communications Center’s requirements in the major functional areas.

Hey, nothing wrong with telecommunications! I worked many years for Nortel – even programmed telephone gear. Heck, I think VOIP (voice over Internet) is the bee’s knees.

And don’t get me started on municipal networking and WiFi.

Just because it appears Jake is top heavy in telecomm , there is no reason he couldn’t be fluent in the latest tech trends. I went on to help bootstrap a couple .COMs to multi-million dollar status as a CIO/CTO. I’m at ease with the latest-n-greatest the computer field offers.

No reason Jake couldn’t have tread the same path.

Still, it is curious, at least to this former member of the unreconstituted Technology Board (you remember how Mayor Foy peremptorily dissolved those apparently nettlesome citizen groups don’t you?), that a needs assessment tapping the wisdom of our computer-oriented citizenry isn’t being performed interactively on the ‘net.

Where is the online forum?

Geez, one of the great advantages of online technology is to open up the discussion – to create a long tail of collaborative content to help fuel innovation.

A few missteps here but Mar. 21st will prove RHJ Associates mettle. 7-9pm. The Library. Bring your tech wishlist.

DTH on WIFI: They have a point…

Friday, September 22nd, 2006


From Sept. 18th’s Daily Tar Heel by kind permission of Mason Phillips.

Nice to see a shout-out to my series on the poor decision to go with the proprietary lock-in NextBus system over an open-standards system. An alternative standards-based system could’ve delivered Internet access along all 23 transit routes – an alternative providing excellent penetration of free communication services into the most under-served of our neighborhoods.

Tapping into our community’s aggregate wisdom

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

My April 26th Daily Tar Heel guest column:

During the November campaign, I spoke of tapping into Chapel Hill’s “talent, innovation and creativity,” a reflection of my belief that good governance flows from maximizing citizen involvement.

How best to tap Chapel Hill’s wisdom?

(more…)

Catch the NextBus VI – 24 Hours Later

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

If I wasn’t focused on bridging our community’s digital divide, I might be tempted to ignore the ridiculously high price Chapel Hill is paying for NextBus’ proprietary system, avoid the recalcitrance of some of our staff and forgo the hassle of trying to undo a “done deal”.

Yet, while alternatives exist, I can’t stand by as we waste a million dollar opportunity to advance the social, economic and operational goals of our town.

What alternatives? Portsmouth UK’s system, with bus stop Wifi hotspots, offers an attractive model for Chapel Hill.

What waste?

Imagine ubiquitous Wifi-MESH Internet connectivity spreading several hundred feet beyond each transit corridor – covering each Park-n-Ride.

For the same $949,025 we could blanket huge swaths of Town with a citizen-owned network.

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