Sharing the wealth
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Feb 04, 2001
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,"
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
"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
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