Sharing the wealth

Michigan's Oakland County is taking on a role usually assumed by the private

sector by becoming an Internet service provider — and offering free service

to its 61 local government entities. It's possibly the first municipality

in the United States to do so.

Officials hope that after bringing the digital world to the door of

small municipalities, good things will follow.

"What it's done is encourage locals to enter the digital world, [which]

they wouldn't have done otherwise," said Robert Daddow, an assistant deputy

county executive and the county's point person for the OAKNet project,

which is expected to link more than 140 sites.

The project began in mid-1998 when the county looked into the cost of laying

down a fiber-optic network to improve communications and increase data sharing

between cities, villages and towns — known in Oakland parlance as CVTs — and various agencies.

"We realized the network that we had in place, which was a hodgepodge

of T-1s, ISDNs, DSLs and dial-up services, wouldn't cut it in the county,"

Daddow said.

County officials thought OAKNet could enhance the services it provides

to municipalities, including property assessments, tax billing and collection,

and other land and treasury functions. With additional federal and state

funds, they also planned to expand a countywide database called the Courts

and Law Enforcement Management Information System. All 43 local law enforcement

agencies, as well as several agencies outside the county, make some use

of the database, which was started in 1982.

By July 2000, the county had installed the backbone of the fiber-optic

network: nearly 400 miles of fiber across a 900-square-mile area. The county

is now linking all municipal and county agencies to the "closet," but, as

is the case with other ISP services, the cities and towns will have to link

from the closet to their desktops.

Daddow said becoming an ISP was a "logical extension" of being connected

to the CVTs.

"The county had an inkling from earlier surveys conducted that there

was a terrific need for the CVTs to have Internet access," he said. In fact,

in early 2000, a county survey revealed that only half the CVTs had Internet

access. And most of those with access relied on a dial-up connection at

a bandwidth speed of 56.6 kilobits/sec — this in one of the country's richest

counties.

"Our per capita income is about $39,000 per person. Here we are with

the second highest per capita in the nation, but only about half our communities

had access to the Internet," Daddow said. "So when we were dropping the

lines in for the locals, we said we'll become your Internet service provider,

give you access to the Internet and we'll host your e-mail service."

Daddow said if municipalities installed their own T-1 lines, it would

cost as much as $8,000 per year. The county improved its own speed to a

fractional T-3 service, which is the equivalent of 12 T-1 lines. That costs

the county $120,000 annually. Providing municipalities with a bandwidth

of roughly 100 megabits/sec speeds with e-mail accounts would add about

$40,000.

The county is using Mirapoint Inc., an Internet messaging provider,

to provide accounts to about 4,400 county employees and 3,000 other local

municipal officials, he said.

Municipalities participate on a voluntary basis, but officials expect

most of them to take advantage of the opportunity.

Mayor Ron Gillham of the city of Huntington Woods, a bedroom community

north of Detroit, said he hoped Internet access would help his city offer

e-government services and save money.

"We do have our own Web site and it is a challenge for a small community

like ours to keep a Web site up and viable," he said, adding that the site

posts information such as calendars and minutes of council meetings, but

no transactional services. "Oakland County should be commended for the things

they are providing us, and it is up to us to take advantage of that."

For residents of Huntington Woods (www.ci.huntington-woods.mi.us/),

services such as making reservations for parks and recreation sites or

paying utility bills and parking fines over the Internet might be welcome,

he said. But each municipality should assess what exactly its community

needs and what its residents want, he said, before making any decisions.

Though the benefits to the network are clear, the county had to sweat

a bit to get the deal done.

The county hired Plante & Moran LLP, a certified public accounting

and management consulting firm, to study the size and use of an enhanced

data communications system with municipalities. In late 1998, it prepared

a request for proposal on the county's behalf.

The county received five

proposals, two of which were discarded for not meeting specifications. They

interviewed Bell Atlantic (which has since merged with GTE Corp. to form

Verizon Communications), Ameritech Corp. and Anixter Inc. Anixter and BellSouth,

who were already building a fiber-optic network, said the county could buy

fiber-optic materials from them for about $8 million. Ameritech quoted the

county a $5 million-per-year lease for 20 years.

Then things got complicated.

Ameritech purchased part of Anixter in early 1999, and the subsidiary

became Ameritech Data Network Solutions. McLeod USA Inc., a direct competitor

of Ameritech, was a subcontractor with Anixter in the fiber-optic installation

when the company's unit was sold. The county signed with ADNS, but McLeod

refused to continue as a subcontractor of Ameritech. So, the county signed

a separate agreement with McLeod.

In all, the $8 million project, of which $650,000 was federally funded,

covered the fiber optics and installation, equipment, engineering and consulting.

The county estimated annual operating costs for round-the-clock monitoring

and maintenance by an outside contractor at $2 million.

Daddow, who said CVTs have exuberantly supported the project, said

the network would help eliminate redundancy of records, such as economic

and community development statistics, assessments, property taxes, fire

records management, public works data, and census and election information.

CVTs would have instant access to the county's data warehouse and geographic

information system as well. He said the network is enabling all the government

entities to consider alternatives to the way public officials do business.

The fiber-optic network also links the local law enforcement agencies

with central computers at the county's service complex. The network supports

law enforcement hardware, software and data by mitigating the need for redundant

local systems and servers for some critical services, such as 911, Daddow

said. Overall, it's cheaper for the agencies.

Police Chief William Dwyer, who heads a 150-person squad in the city

of Farmington Hills, said the increased bandwidth and Internet capability

would enhance current law enforcement functions and create new ones. Dwyer

has been chairman of the countywide court database for the last seven years.

"This whole thing as far as being able to have a high-speed system is

extremely important," said Dwyer, a 38-year veteran of law enforcement.

Benefits would include a video arraignment system where prisoners could

be arraigned by a judge offsite, and would not have to be transported to

and from the courthouse. This could save hundreds of thousands of dollars

in personnel costs and eliminate life-threatening situations, he said. Recently,

Dwyer said one prisoner tried to kill three officers; that prisoner had

to have an escort of six detectives to the courthouse.

The ISP also will help the county expand its law enforcement database

in varied ways.

Emergency dispatchers would be able to use a geographic information

system to locate vehicles on a computer screen to better coordinate response

time. Digital images of mug shots and fingerprints would be centralized

and available to all law enforcement agencies, instead of only the handful

that now have access. Digital pictures of the county's 440,000 residential

and commercial sites would be stored centrally to enhance land records information

and be used by dispatchers to help emergency vehicles better locate addresses.

Citizens would be able to report crimes and communicate with officers via

the World Wide Web.

"We're the most progressive and aggressive [county] in the nation,"

Dwyer said. "I don't think any come close [to] doing what we are doing with

technology."

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.