Houston plans for wireless savings

Houston officials expect the city's latest wireless contracts to save money in more ways than one.

Under 5-year deals recently signed with Cingular and Verizon, Houston could spend a total of $9.5 million, or almost double the $5 million value of the previous 5-year contract with Cingular. But the city gets much more for its money, including:

* It has more than twice as many minutes. For $3.7 million over five years, Houston gets 1.7 million wireless minutes monthly from Cingular, compared to 750,000 per month under the old arrangement. And the pool now falls under Cingular's national plan, so the city won't have to worry about roaming charges, said Janis Jefferson, Houston's deputy director for information technology services.

* It offers mobile data access. Houston now has its first enterprisewide contract, worth up to $2.7 million, for wireless cards for mobile devices. Cingular expects to distribute about 1,100 cards that provide speeds nearing 135 kilobits per second on the company's network, said Keith Cressman, director of sales for the Cingular's government solutions group, central region.

* It provides a second wireless provider. Verizon will supply wireless phones with so-called “push-to-talk” service that offers two-way, radio-type communication at the push of a button.

Verizon will also handle service for any city employees who need individual rate plans that must be handled outside the citywide pool with Cingular. Verizon will get up to $1.7 million over five years for its wireless offerings.

Also, Cingular will continue with the city government's Blackberry contract, a deal with a $1.1 million ceiling over five years.

The remaining money under the $9.5 million deal will pay for equipment purchases, Jefferson said.

The city started its new wireless services on Aug. 1, and municipal employees couldn’t wait, Jefferson said.

“It's an exciting day for everyone today,” Jefferson said. “I just talked to my manager and he said we are swamped. There was a lot of pent-up demand.”

The first-day rush wasn't a surprise. The city government had a moratorium on new wireless orders over the past year, except for public safety need and replacements of previous service.

Under the old contract with Cingular, Houston hit its $5 million ceiling far earlier than expected because the city outstripped its pool of minutes every month, resulting in costly overage charges. Municipal officials had to ask the city council to add more funds on two occasions, for a total of $1.5 million in additional spending beyond the original contract.

That's why the city decided to bid out for another wireless deal before the old contract ended, Jefferson said. With the new package, Houston's per-minute cost for voice service runs to about 3.7 cents per minute, compared to more than 6 cents in the previous package.

Although Cingular gets less per-minute under the new deal, the company's total revenue from the city increases because of the data offerings.

“It's an important contract that solidifies our relationship with a key city to us,” Cressman said.

Houston's building code enforcers were already running a pilot with Blackberry devices used to get assignments and file reports without traveling to the office.

Fewer trips to the office just to get forms and enter data means lower spending on fuel and more time for more productive work, Jefferson said. The city IT department estimates that the code enforcement unit's Blackberry use alone would eliminate $608,000 in annual costs, including 44,000 gallons of fuel and 27,000 work hours that would have been spent driving 833,000 miles.

Officials expect savings to go far beyond that, because with the new Cingular offering, Houston plans to expand mobile data capabilities to the rest of the city's workers in the field, such as health and fire inspectors, Jefferson said.

Sergio Non is a writer based in northern Virginia. He can be reached at sergio@sergionon.com.

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