Corpus Christi Shows Way to Muni Success

Published November 1, 2007

A successful municipal wireless operation requires top-to-bottom understanding of the applications, costs, and limitations of the technology plus committed buy-in from departmental stakeholders from the earliest phases, Corpus Christi, Texas officials told a September forum in Washington, DC.

The current consensus among industry and policy analysts names Corpus Christi as the city most successful at launching a municipal wireless program. Corpus Christi is nearing completion of its 147-square-mile network and is just one of two cities where its private-sector partner, EarthLink, has agreed to remain.

As cities around the country abandon municipal wireless projects, city managers searching for ways to tap the potential of the Internet and broadband have turned to this south Texas city of 300,000 to understand what went right.

Home Service Low Priority

The answer might turn out to be respect for both the private sector and the complexities of information technology. The experience in Corpus Christi suggests a measured approach is far better than the commonly much more ambitious universal municipal broadband plans.

Speaking at a conference called “WiFi Done Right, Part 2,” organized by the Public Technology Institute (PTI), a Washington-based nonprofit focused on urban planning, officials ranging from the city manager to the chief of police sketched a picture of a wireless network that was conceived not as an end in itself but as one element in a much larger information technology overhaul designed to improve city operations through strategic application of digital technology and large-scale networking.

“Our focus was not on the digital divide and not on delivering service into people’s homes,” said George “Skip” Noe, Corpus Christi city manager.

‘Broadband’ Gets Little Buzz

In the end, Noe and fellow city officials sounded more like corporate chief information officers describing a centralized, enterprise-wide technology integration project. The word “broadband” was not used until almost two hours into the presentations.

Their implication was that too many cities and towns approach municipal wireless as a retail Internet service, usually in competition with established providers, with a rather naïve belief that once WiFi antennas were atop poles, broadband use would explode and create fast local economic growth.

Alan Shark, executive director of PTI, which consulted with Corpus Christi throughout the project, said the current wave of municipal pullbacks is due in large part to hype and excessive promises, especially the idea that muni wireless would be free, and unreasonable demands cities placed on would-be partners.

Cities Ask Too Much

Pointing to what he characterized as an “RFP (request for proposal) crisis,” Shark provided specific examples of bid provisions that have chased willing partners in other cities away:

  • Five-year non-exclusivity–the winning bidder would have to pay to build the network, but share it with competitors;
  • Free use for municipal workers, students, and disabled individuals;
  • Free use for residents of public housing;
  • Free public access in general;
  • Ten battery back-ups at all hotspot locations; and
  • Citywide coverage within six months.

Both Shark and Corpus Christi officials said city managers must recognize the true costs and capabilities of wireless technology–as well as the applications it is most suited to support.

Managing Expectations

The Corpus Christi project involved strong communications and managed expectations from the beginning, said Noe.

The effort began with a proposal by the municipal gas and water companies to automate meter readings. The idea snowballed into a broader investigation of how the city could improve services and cut costs by migrating time- and paper-intensive work to a wireless network.

The strategy from the start was to align the interests of numerous city departments, including police, fire, education, and licensing, and develop a business plan to meet their needs while monitoring results. That allows for validation of the strategy, acceptable return on investment, and an ability to make adjustments when necessary.

“For city departments we had to make [WiFi] relevant. We had to demonstrate the portable devices, the mobile network, access to databases, training, communications, and the improvements in operational efficiency and service delivery would be there,” said Oscar Martinez, assistant city manager.

In addition to automatic meter reading, Corpus Christi police, fire, and ambulance corps use the network for various applications, such as real-time search of license plate records, relaying building plans from a building department database to firefighters at a scene, and forwarding real-time patient data from ambulances to hospitals.

Social Issues Addressed

Digital divide issues are being addressed now, in the project’s second phase, and the city is being careful not to overhype the capabilities. “We were not going to be in the business of being an [Internet Service Provider],” said Susan Cable, Corpus Christi’s former director of e-government services, who has continued working with the city as a consultant for e-services.

To address digital inclusion issues, the city has established the Corpus Christi Digital Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group that primarily looks to develop e-government applications that give the WiFi network and Internet connectivity broader appeal across larger portions of the population. While this may include free connectivity and training, it also involves ways to make it easier for citizens to work with city government, such as using Web applications to fill out forms that would otherwise require a trip downtown, file theft reports, pay taxes and fees, and perform other transactions.

Services such as these, Cable said, provide reasons for individuals who might at first see little value in the Internet to go online. Overall, she added, they might work better at achieving inclusiveness than simply building network infrastructure.

The two-day forum drew about 70 attendees. Most were either city managers or IT managers from cities and towns in Texas. The registered attendee list also included planning officials from Sacramento, California and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.