Untethering Tempe: A City Goes Wireless

Article ImageWiFi access has been cropping up in some unexpected places lately. While access at airports and other hubs of activity is useful, if not terribly surprising, WiFi is slowly making its way to more off-beat locales. New York has made Bryant Park and other public areas WiFi-enabled; Starbucks and retailers around the country provide access while you sip your latte, grab a burger, or make copies. The latest on the WiFi roadmap is the city of Tempe, Arizona. And you better believe that the state the Grand Canyon calls home is doing WiFi in a big way.

Tempe took notice when Boston played host to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. With the massive influx of bloggers and reporters covering the convention, Boston simply didn't have the capacity to provide for the access needs of every attendee. For some, the clamor for acceptable Internet access eclipsed the excitement of the event itself, causing chaos, stress, and confusion. So Tempe went to great lengths to ensure that it would have the infrastructure in place to support those coming to Tempe's Arizona State University for one of the presidential debates.

The city of Tempe began working with the Downtown Tempe Community and WAZ Alliance to WiFi-enable the city. WAZ Alliance currently operates WAZ Tempe and is in the process of creating WAZ Irvine and WAZ Maui. WAZ Tempe, in turn, enlisted Tropos Networks to provide technology for the project; Tropos provides cellular WiFi services, specializing in large-scale implementations, including citywide projects.

WAZ Tempe put together a network where users pay to access WiFi in areas around downtown Tempe; special promotions include discounts for ASU students, city-wide availability for guests of local hotels, and varying pricing plans for residents (hourly, daily, monthly, and by special event). However, because ASU's Gammage Auditorium would require a considerable amount of bandwidth for a very short period of time, they employed a unique temporary solution in the form of a WiFi vehicle.

"The WiFi cart is actually a promotional vehicle developed by the folks at the WAZ Alliance," says Brad Day, marketing and communications director for Tropos. "They actually mounted a Tropos 5110 WiFi Mesh Cell to an electric vehicle which they can use to temporarily extend the network coverage for special events, such as the presidential debate." The carts, called Teener E, are manufactured by the W.A.T.T. Corporation (World Alternative Transportation Technologies) in Italy. Each unit, which tops out at 35 mph, can transport two passengers and is powered by rechargeable batteries that provide about four hours of run time. They are also designed to abide by Federal Motor Safety Standards including seat belts, a roll cage, emergency brakes, and other security measures. The WiFi unit on the cart extends the usual range of WiFi equipment from approximately 300-500 feet to about one mile.

As for future uses, Day suggests that, "the vehicle may be used to extend commercial coverage to the areas around Sun Devil Stadium for the upcoming college bowl games." Mike Nasco, managing director of WAZ Tempe, has big plans too, with reported interest in creating a hydrogen-powered cart and a unit that has more of a truck design.

WiFi innovation in Tempe has manifested itself in a more unusual project as well: WiFi-enabled patrol bicycles for use by the police department. Although still very much in the nascent stages, the project has fascinating implications for law enforcement. Tempe has made a concerted effort to promote cycling and has set 150 miles of bike trails, lanes, and roads aside for cyclists. But since crime isn't limited to areas with vehicular access, officers in Tempe's Bicycle Patrol Unit, comprised of 22 specially trained officers, may eventually have a new way to patrol the downtown Tempe district with WiFi-enabled patrol bikes to access both the Internet and police databases. With such uses in mind, Tempe's network is designed to serve two needs within the community: offer a Public Services side for the use of the general public and a Public Safety side that will be protected and provide access and resources for city officials.

Curiously, "we are not involved in this testing process," says Jeff Lane, public relations officer for the Tempe police department. "Maybe in the near future we will be asked to participate." It seems that an accurate test of the patrol bikes would be difficult without including those who would actually use them in the field, but the tests should shed light on possible applications within law enforcement.

"Tropos technology is used by police officers of all functions in a number of cities today," says Day. Although he is not familiar with any particular bicycle project in Tempe, he contends that Tropos certainly lends itself to such implementations since, "the Tropos metro-scale WiFi solution does not require any special equipment on the client side…a laptop or tablet computer, or a WiFi enabled PDA, can access the network." WAZ Tempe has gone one step further and begun to look at specific hardware for use in the project. "We researched the field rather thoroughly," says Nasco, "and concluded that there were three premier suppliers of ruggedized Tablet PCs that could be used: Itronix Go Book, Panasonic Toughbook, and the JLT G-Force 850…Personally I prefer the G-Force 850!"

Eventually, the goal is to make the city of Tempe entirely wireless. With the trifecta of the Downtown Tempe Community, WAZ Tempe, and support from the city, Tempe looks on target to make citywide WiFi a serviceable reality.

(www.downtowntempe.com, www.tempe.gov, http://tempe.waz-alliance.com, www.tropos.com)