South Carolina city uses muni wireless for energy management, public safety, free WiFi

Still not convinced about the value of city-owed fiber plus muni wireless? Listen to the webinar featuring Jimmy Bagley, city CIO of Rock Hill, South Carolina, about how Rock Hill uses the city’s fiber network and the municipal wireless broadband network to become more energy efficient, help the police and fire department do their work more effectively, and provide free Wi-Fi to residents in public areas. I listened to this webinar and summarized it for you below.

The city of Rock Hill, South Carolina owns a fiber network, as well as the public utility. Rock Hill deployed a municipal wireless broadband network with multiple uses:

  • wireless automated meter reading
  • public safety (police and fire)
  • wireless video surveillance in public parks
  • free Wi-Fi access to residents in certain outdoor locations

The city uses its own fiber network and Alvarion wireless units for backhaul. To create the citywide Wi-Fi network, they use Tropos mesh equipment (100 gateways and 700 mesh nodes). Some of the wireless access points are solar-powered.

More efficient energy management through Wi-Fi

The city installed wireless meter readers that allow it to monitor water and electricity use by residents. Utility trucks have small antennas on their roofs allowing them to connect to the network so utility workers can do their job from the field.

Because the city is a public utility (water, electricity, sewer), they installed the wireless meters that could report wirelessly when there’s an outage of electricity (the meters have batteries). There are 60,000 wireless meters that report every 15 minutes. The city plans to expand wireless network to cover an extra 10 square miles.

Why wireless automated meter reading (AMR)?

  • outage management: they can find out immediately where they are power outages
  • monitor water filter plants
  • quickly locate where there are problems at customer locations and sewage treatment facilities

Other benefits of the wireless AMR system?

  • reduced the number of times utility personnel have to re-read a meter
  • quickly respond to customer inquiries
  • fewer billing disputes with customers
  • if someone tries to manipulate or steal a meter, they find out immediately

Public safety

Police and fire department personnel do their work from the field. The fire department download building plans and hazardous materials storage information on the road. Police officers check databases from the street, file reports, check up on suspicious persons.

Disaster management

Because the area gets a lot of hurricanes, the city needs a way to restore communications when cellular and landlines are down. The municipal wireless network provides the alternative. Moreover, the wireless nodes in police cars and fire trucks enable them to communicate even when the nodes on the electric poles are not functioning, essentially creating point-to-point communications networks (an ad hoc network).

Wi-Fi in parks

Free Wi-Fi in parks , soccer fields and tennis courts have been popular, especially with parents who attend sporting events. The city hosts a girls’ softball league that attracts hundreds of teams and the Wi-Fi network allows the spectators to upload photos to photo sharing sites, check on league scores, look up rules and statistics, etc.

Question and Answer Session

(1) How did the city finance the network?

The city issued RFQs to local banks to finance the project (wireless broadband network plus AMR). It obtained a 3-4%, five-year loan for the network, a 10-year loan for the metering system.

(2) Did the city consider using WiMAX technology?

The city looked into using WiMAX but although WiMAX looks good on paper, the city could not use the applications it wanted to implement using WiMAX. So it went with Wi-Fi instead.

(3) Did the city consider using the 4.9 GHz frequency for public safety?

They looked into it but decided to go with 2.4 GHz (Wi-Fi) because they could use the 2.4 GHz network for other applications (meter reading, Wi-Fi service to residents).

(4) How long is the battery life on the meters?

Although the manufacturer says it’s 20 years, realistically, the city expects battery life to be closer to 10 years.

(5) What  were the significant unanticipated obstacles they encountered when they deployed the network?

Selling the project to the finance people on the city council.

(6) What does the city use as backhaul for the network?

City-owed fiber and Alvarion equipment.

(7) How long did it take for the city to deploy the network from concept to going live?

It took 15 to 18 months. They deployed the wireless network first, then installed the AMR system. They plan to expand the network by 10 square miles in 2009.

(8) What lessons did the city learn? What would they have done differently?

When they tried to convince the other city departments (e.g. public safety) to go along with their plan, it was difficult for those people to visualize how the network could make their work for effective. They could have done a better job helping the others see more clearly how the network benefits them.

(9) Are there plans for the city to provide Wi-Fi service to residents?

The city considered acting as a wireless ISP or getting an ISP to provide the service to residents over the network. It’s a political issue because there is already a local ISP. So the city is talking instead to the local university which has 6000 students and partnering with them to roll out Wi-Fi service to the students.

(10) Will the city provide the Wi-Fi service free of charge?

This is a political issue, as mentioned earlier. In deciding whether or not to charge for access (and what amount to charge), the city would simply want to recoup its costs, not necessarily make huge profits from providing Wi-Fi access.

To listen to the webinar and download the slides, go to:
http://www.tropos.com/tropos_downloads/RockHill/RockHill_inquiry.php

Link to the Rock Hill case study:
http://www.tropos.com/pdf/success_stories/tropos_success_story_rockhill

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Related News:

Here’s another example of a city which owns a fiber network, using its municipal wireless broadband network for wireless automated meter reading, public safety and free WiFi access.

Ponca City, Oklahoma uses muni wireless for AMR, free WiFi

Comments

  1. Interesting case study in Rock Hill. Powerful that the additive benefits of several applications contributed to a positive business case. This is an improvement over the “build it and they will come” mentality.
    Just the same, I was under the impression that it is expensive to upgrade and install wireless power meters, that it is difficult to make a business case for that solely on the basis of being able to read meters more cheaply, and that the only way to get close to a business case was to have some time-of-day and surge-management pricing arrangements that required real-time meter reading.
    Anyone know more about this and the business cases?

  2. This article gives a great insight to some real world savings in the efficient use of available public sector communication network assets. Ponca City has the advantage of owning their own fiber optic backbone but this is actually true for many cities and counties. There are thousands of miles of public sector wireless and fiber optic communication assets available in local public safety, water, electric and transportation network facilities all over the US. These communication assets often equal or even surpass in size to local private sector network infrastructure investment.

    The problem with public sector network facilities is that they are often bought a point to point at a time for government departmental cost reduction purposes and are not shared between other agencies. This often leaves hundreds of multi-agency government network duplications and even entire local dark fiber spurs connected to nothing. Basically the network stops when the department runs out of money.

    The key is to inventory all of these existing partially built public sector networks and then have multiple government entities leverage the advantages of sharing of these network infrastructures. Add a little public/private sector municipal wireless and you can light up an entire city. These shared networks can reduce city and county departmental network costs while lowering tax and utility costs to citizens. It looks like Ponco City gets it and demonstrates a real world and sustainable business model for municipal wireless.

  3. Larry is correct on the duplications between departments. Cost justification is typically done by one department for one application. Bring them across multiple departments and at $3000 – $5000 per square mile installed (includes labor), just the vandalism and theft prevention alone pays for it. Add force multiplication, meter reading, reduced wireline data and voice applications, video analytics, etc…, and any city that doesn’t do it is wasting taxpayers dollars.

  4. Steve has a great point regarding the cost of remote meter reading. Rock Hill has always found it difficult to solely justify the cost of a wireless broadband project on meter reading alone. When you consider the value of having municipal information and services (such as VOIP with softphones using a laptop) available in a true mobile environment, then the costs become much more justifiable. Having police officers in the field filing reports, researching warrants and outstanding arrests, running license plates, etc. certainly makes them more visible as well as more accessible and efficient. We have applications for the building inspectors to input data real time in the field so that contractors and office staff have instant access to the information. In addition there is an inherent opportunity to provide internet service for free as a hot spot to neighborhood parks, as we have done in Rock Hill, or you can consider becoming a full serivice Internet Service Provider to your customers as an additional funding source for your business model.

    We are finding new uses of the wireless broadband as well as new cost saving measures using the wireless broadband virtually every day. The meter reading application is certainly one of our most beneficial applications because it also offers so much more regarding customer service with the outage reporting features and ability to give customers their usage data on a daily or hourly real time basis.

    Rock Hill has certainly experienced good results and benefits from having a wireless broadband system as well as a fiber optic backbone and wireless backhaul. However, every city is different in terms of needs and functionality. I would encourage anyone interested to consider all the opportunities afforded by owning a wireless broadband solution.

  5. Mark Simms says:

    The city has one of the best free coverage areas in the state. It’s just too bad the city only offers one home internet provider which has some of the highest rates in the country.
    Comporium (the ISP) even against the vast majority of citizens voting against using Comporium the city counsel approved a new contract with them after some good ol’boy under the table wallet stuffing.

  6. It’s wrong for Comporium to dictate what other businesses can and can not do for the residents. If RH wants to offer this as a free public service to residents, who is Comporium to say otherwise? There are people who can’t afford the outrageous prices that are charged for this service and with the prevalence of the internet anymore, it’s just wrong to oppose it. Network TV is free, so should be wifi.

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