They won't get left behind

Railroads and four-lane highways once linked cities with prosperity. Lucky

towns along the routes had a chance at economic success, while many of those

without access were left behind.

Today, access is still key to a community's economic growth — and much

more. Cities need high-speed networks and technology infrastructure plans

for robust video and data transmission, Internet access, distance learning,

telemedicine and maybe eventually local phone service.

"This is how you prepare your city for the economy of the 21st century,"

said Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet

Research at Northwestern University.

Metropolitan-area networks are nothing new. Almost all city governments

have built something to link their buildings and operations. But as they

upgrade to the next level of in-house networking, city officials are finding

they can provide cost and operational benefits not just to their own agencies,

but to the broader community. That is beginning to happen as cities address

the issue on a more cooperative level, working with the private sector,

other public-sector entities and the nonprofit community.

Chicago, for example, plans to partner with a consortium of telecommunications

companies to build a citywide fiber-optic network that everyone — from government

and churches to corporations and individuals — can use, lowering the cost

of use per customer while fostering economic development.

Government groups in the Austin, Texas, area recognized that teaming

up and aggregating their business would save taxpayers millions of dollars

and improve the area's overall quality of life in terms of education, public

safety and other government services.

Tucson, Ariz., received its new fiber-optic network for free in a unique

deal with its outgoing cable company, but is now generously extending fiber

strands to schools and community groups.

Benefits abound — for example, economies of scale in building and operating

the network, increased efficiencies, the ability to interconnect and provide

multiorganizational applications, increased attractiveness to both Main

Street and New Economy companies, and a higher quality of life for residents.

Still, city officials embarking on this type of project face plenty

of challenges: Do you outsource or take ownership of the network? How do

you get everyone to agree on the same goals? How do you pool the requirements

of the participants without watering down government services? What pitfalls

might exist if outside organizations are allowed to run on the same network

as police and fire department data? Who's going to take charge?

Officials who are getting or already have their souped-up MANs underway

admit that they're feeling their way through the obstacles.

"There have definitely been birthing pains," said Bill Bard, chairman

of the Board of Directors for the Greater Austin Area Tele-communications

Network (GAATN). "The key is to really take the time to figure out exactly

what you want from the beginning. The problems you run into [and] the things

you have to invent aren't technical, they're procedural and cultural."

Chicago: Ubiquitous Fiber

Chicago once prided itself on being the national center of transportation.

But if Mayor Richard Daley has his way, the Windy City would forever be

known as the capital of data networking. His vision? CivicNet, a public/private

initiative that would install the most extensive fiber-optic infrastructure

in the country and bring high-speed communications to every neighborhood

in the city.

"In the past, you've had city-owned utilities and you've had something

that is totally outsourced," explained Mambretti, who is also a member of

the mayor's Council of Technology Advisors and chairman of the Council's

Information Technology Infrastructure Committee. "This is neither of those

things. We've basically said, "Let's try something new,' which is working

as a public/private partnership collectively toward common goals."

City officials have patterned their new project after the "shopping

mall" model, whereby one large tenant offers a contractor enough guaranteed

business to entice him to invest his own funds and build out the entire

structure, with the added incentive of breaking even or possibly earning

a profit from the fees collected from other, smaller renters. Once built,

the project then becomes totally outsourced, with the contractor responsible

for operations and management.

In the case of CivicNet, the city government would act as anchor tenant,

paying the contractor the $25 million a year that it already spends on telecommunications

to reserve fiber on the new network and connect 1,600 city locations, including

police and fire stations.

The rest of the fiber would be available to other organizations, including

businesses, schools, libraries, hospitals, community centers, churches and

even individuals. Each would pay a monthly service fee for access and usage.

According to city officials, there are more than 1,000 community entities

that spend more than $1 million each on network access, so the strong likelihood

of smaller "renters" makes an even greater business case to potential contractors.

The CivicNet project, the result of a strategic plan put together by

the mayor's Council of Technology Advisors, marks the first time that city

agencies have aggregated all of their business.

"By pulling all of our money together, we realized that we could build

something much bigger and much more useful to the city as a whole than we

ever could by working individually," said Doug Power, project director for

CivicNet. "So it's money we would have spent anyway, but now we can leverage

it to help get fiber out to all the neighborhoods, to help bring them into

the 21st century lifestyle and economy."

Already, the telecommunications industry has respond-ed with enthusiasm.

When the city released a request for information late last year, more than

60 companies and consortiums responded.

"They're basically telling us, "Yes, this is what cities should be doing,'"

Mambretti said.

In April, the city will issue a request for proposal and expects to

award a contract by the end of the year.

"If we can pull this sucker off, we would be the first city in the country

to have ubiquitous fiber," Power said. "And that's obviously going to get

a lot of attention in terms of getting companies to bring their businesses

and new high-paying jobs here."

In fact, economic development — not enhancing government operations

— was the primary driver behind the decision to implement a public/private

network.

Like most cities, Chicago suffers from an obvious digital divide. The

downtown region, already possessing a fiber infrastructure, is a hub of

intense and growing commercial activity, but the neighborhoods, once a flurry

of manufacturing activity, have lost out on the economic boom of the last

decade.

"The rents are lower in the neighborhoods, but there's no fiber, so

factories have been shut down and we've got an awful lot of abandoned warehouses,"

Power said. "But if we can get in a situation where we can get jobs into

the neighborhoods, there are all kinds of quality-of-life issues that will

spin off of that."

The ultimate benefit, Mambretti said, is a network built to precise

specifications, as opposed to one that requires retrofitting the city's

needs. "It's the difference between buying a custom house and buying a model

house," he said.

Although there are plenty of challenges involved in building a network

as large and complex as CivicNet — including looking at other funding alternatives

— none are considered potential deal-breakers, Mambretti said.

"The project is innovative to be sure, but it's not a high-risk plan,"

he said. "We're proceeding [methodically] and I don't see anything that's

not manageable."

Austin: Alone but Together

In the mid-1990s, seven government and education organizations in central

Texas individually considered building their own fiber-optic networks — each at a probable cost of $7 million to $8 million. Instead, they got together

and built one $13 million network, paying individually for their own fiber

strands, but sharing the more expensive costs of construction, installation

and maintenance.

"It's all a simple matter of economics," said GAATN's Bard. "If you

operate a network that spans a metropolitan area, it really doesn't matter

whether that network is serving one entity or several. There are econo-mies

of scale to be had if everybody aggregates their media."

Such cooperation, Bard said, is unprecedented, so figuring out how to

make it work has been the greatest challenge. "It's really not that it's

so difficult, it's just that it's so new," Bard said, and though the system

has been up and running for four years, participants didn't take ownership

until July 1998, and many new applications are just coming online. "We've

had to invent a lot of things."

Still, the sense of ownership that everyone gets from this media-based

model helped guarantee solid teamwork.

One thing the group didn't want to do, Bard said, was create another

public-sector bureaucracy. So instead of making GAATN an entity that employed

staff and made financial decisions that had to be approved by an executive

committee, the group signed what's called an inter-local agreement. With

this plan, a single participant acts as an agent for each major responsibility.

Thus, the Austin Independent School District acts as construction agent

and as financial agent, making all purchasing decisions and collecting

quarterly dues. The City of Austin manages and monitors the network.

"The network administrators are actually city em-ployees, but they invoice

the school for the number of hours they work on GAATN," Bard said.

Debbie Opdahl, director of network systems and support for the Austin

Independent School District, said the arrangement offers cost efficiencies

and benefits beyond saving money on construction and management.

"It's created an opportunity to benefit from service offerings that

other GAATN partners have," she said.

For example, Austin Community College will offer college-level courses

via distance learning to seniors at Austin high schools. The Travis County

correctional institutions will have access to a new computer-aided dispatch

system that the Austin Police Department is unveiling next year, and the

same system interests the security staff at the schools. Meanwhile, the

school district and other GAATN partners purchase Internet access through

the University of Texas at Austin.

"They're already buying a lot of bandwidth, so we can get it at a much

reduced cost than we could if we went out and negotiated for ourselves individually,"

Opdahl said.

But Patrick Jordan, Austin's assistant director of information systems,

said that a lot of development has to occur before GAATN can truly interconnect.

"Even though we're on the common sheet, we all operate our strands independently,

so there are definitely technical issues related to building a link between

the different entities," he said. "They can be resolved, but it takes funding,

engineering and time for the requirements to mature and crystallize."

Bard calls the arrangement a boon for the city. For one thing, it's

less costly for taxpayers. Bard estimates that in aggregate the participants

save $3 million to $4 million a year in network costs. Then there's the

quality issue.

"I think it enables the public-sector entities to provide better services

to the taxpayer in such a way that it makes Austin a better place to be.

And hopefully, that quality of life and improved environment will draw new

businesses and new jobs," Bard said.

Tucson: No Strings Attached

When it comes to negotiating a great deal on a network, no one can beat

Tucson, Ariz.

The "Old Pueblo," as this desert city of 800,000 residents is affectionately

known, is getting its new Institutional Network (I-Net) basically for free,

thanks to an agreement city officials made with former cable provider TCI

a few years back.

The 125-mile fiber-optic network connects 70 government buildings — including police and fire stations, libraries, parks and neighborhood centers

— as well as a lesser number of nongovernment buildings, such as schools.

The project is scheduled to come online this summer and will be completely

owned and operated by the city.

"We really had no choice but to go with our own system," said Steve Postil,

telecommunications administrator for the city. Although outsourcing was

an option, city officials wanted to maintain control for security purposes.

"We're just a small city, and the most we could get access to in terms

of speed was a T-3 line,'' he said.

By contrast, the new network will boast an OC-48 Asynchronous Transfer

Mode backbone, which will allow data to travel at an even higher velocity

than the high-speed residential and commercial broadband cable network currently

being built by new local provider Cox Communications Inc. (which recently

replaced TCI).

Together, though, the two networks provide complementary benefits to

the community and ultimately are expected to enhance economic development

and quality-of-life issues such as public safety, education and health care.

For instance, the I-Net will wire downtown museums, an aquarium, visitor

centers and other noncommercial entities as part of an extensive redevelopment

project. Cox Communications will then provide high-speed service to businesses

that relocate to the renewed area.

Meanwhile, in a test project, the city will extend the I-Net to a neighborhood

center in the Barrio Santa Rosa public housing project. Then Cox Com-munications

will provide discounted Internet service to residences in that low-income

neighborhood.

Although everyone will benefit — directly or indirectly — from the new

network, Postil said, the I-Net is first and foremost a government network.

"By law, we're not allowed to be in competition with the private sector,"

he said. "And it makes sense. From their point of view, they're not going

to give you a system so you can turn around and use it against their bottom

line."

But that doesn't mean that Tucson can't extend a helping hand to nonprofits.

Schools, the community college, the university, arts groups, senior centers

and recreational centers are all allowed to acquire two fibers for free,

though they have to buy their own electronics and build and manage their

own networks.

"It provides them 125 miles worth of fiber for free that they can use

to communicate among themselves," Postil said. "And this way, they can run

it the way they want to for whatever purpose they want to."

More importantly, the city's highest priority users — the police and

fire departments — don't have to share fiber and worry about security threats

or lack of bandwidth.

"One of the major concerns was that if you had a major emergency like

a tornado coming through and all of a sudden you've got a ton of traffic

moving along those fibers, who gets bounced off?" Postil said. "We didn't

want to have those kinds of concerns, and we felt like if we outsourced

it, we wouldn't have any control over it."

In fact, the driving factor behind the initial decision to pursue a

governmentwide high-speed fiber system was the need to replace the police

department's outdated frame relay network. With the new system, police officers

and firefighters will have immediate access to critical information, such

as warrants and building plans.

"It will be a quantum leap for us," said Rick Springer, data services

superintendent for the Tucson Police Department. Without the city's proactive

move, the organization would have had little choice but to stick with the

existing frame relay system and simply beef it up. They never could have

had the redundancy that the new network provides.

"We'll be able to get more information out to the patrol officers in

their cars and help them in the performance of their jobs," Springer said.

That includes video mug shots and the ability to print citations and perform

fingerprinting out in the field.

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached

at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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