South Dakota, Wireless Hotspot: Feasibility of Statewide WiMAX-Enabled Municipal Internet Built on the K-12 Network

A paper submitted 2009.04.13
for INFS 750 Networks (etc.)
By Cory Allen Heidelberger

ABSTRACT

Municipal wireless Internet offers potential economic and cultural benefits to all communities. However, the capital (physical and human) required to deploy and manage such networks appears to set a natural lower bound on the size of community that can successfully sustain such a system. Rural communities in South Dakota, most with populations under 10,000, likely fall below that threshold. Therefore, this paper proposes a model for a statewide cooperative network of municipal wireless Internet services in South Dakota, built on the existing infrastructure that provides Internet access to public schools across the state.

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The city of Berlin, population 3.4 million, mounts antennae on traffic lights to provide free wireless Internet access throughout the center of the city that, if successful, could cover 35.5 square miles (Der Spiegel, 2009). The Aberdeen Downtown Association of Aberdeen, South Dakota, population 24,000, establishes free wireless Internet access for businesses along several blocks of Main Street (Arthur-Richardt 2008).

Several municipalities large and small have experimented at different scales with municipal wireless services and have met with mixed success. But is municipal wireless Internet feasible for even smaller rural communities like Madison (population 6,300), Flandreau (population 2,300), and Montrose (population 450)? It would seem that all communities could find benefits in open and pervasive Internet availability, but is there a lower bound to the size of community that can support its own citywide wireless network? Municipal governments in cities the size of Madison often cannot afford to hire dedicated IT staff. Some smaller rural community governments hardly have the staff to maintain a municipal Internet presence, let alone build or administer a public wireless network.

Yet in South Dakota, almost every one of these communities has a well-developed public computer network and Internet access, built through a cooperative local and state effort, in its school buildings and public libraries. The state supports a centralized administration system that coordinates Internet services for a couple hundred school districts spread over 76,000 square miles. This paper investigates the possibility of expanding this system to provide municipal wireless Internet via WiMAX to every community in South Dakota and create a statewide wireless Internet hotspot.

BACKGROUND

“…people lack many things: jobs, shelter, food, health care and drinkable water. Today, being cut off from basic telecommunications services is a hardship almost as acute as these other deprivations, and may indeed reduce the chances of finding remedies to them.”

-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in a keynote address
to the International Telecommunication Union, Oct. 9, 1999
(cited in Mandviwalla et al., 2008).

Vos (2009) attempts to survey the number of municipalities with some sort of public wireless deployment. That survey finds 104 jurisdictions with active region or citywide wireless programs, 74 jurisdictions with active city hotzones, and 55 jurisdictions with wireless networks strictly for public safety and municipal use. Vos also tentatively identifies 140 jurisdictions with some sort of citywide or countywide wireless project in the works (anywhere between request for proposals to deployment phase). This list identifies no projects in South Dakota (Aberdeen’s downtown wireless project is not on the list, likely because the Aberdeen project is not an official municipal project). The list does include rural areas like western Kansas; Buffalo, Minnesota; and Umatilla County, Oregon. Aaron (2008) identifies “thriving” city-owned wireless systems in small- to mid-sized communities such as Hermiston, Oregon; Scottsburg, Indiana; and St. Cloud, Florida. While not a municipal system, the Mountain Area Information Network has operated since 1996 as an analogue to rural electric cooperatives and is expanding wireless broadband to rural areas, thus demonstrating the ability effective Internet service provision on a non-profit model.

In an analysis of 25 different municipal wireless network projects, Mandviwalla et al. (2008) identify several different social and economic objectives that may motivate communities to attempt to establish universal publicly funded Internet access (see Table 1).

Table 1: Social and Economic Motivations for Deploying
Municipal Wireless Internet

Social Objectives

Economic Objectives

address digital divide

decrease Internet access costs for government

attract visitors

support local entrepreneurs with easy Internet access

improve access to public services

promote economic development

promote civic engagement

decrease need for physical network infrastructure

Aadikalam et al. (2008) identify bridging the digital divide as a primary motivation for local governments to seek low-cost Internet options; however, addressing the digital divide requires much more than a municipality beaming out a signal. To truly expand Internet access, communities deploying municipal wireless must also invest in education programs and public workstations. Mandviwalla et al. note that further research is necessary to establish the extent to which municipal wireless can address the digital divide and the other objectives they identify.

The public sector may also have a market interest in providing Internet service. Telecom mergers are consolidating control of the Internet and other media in fewer corporate hands, raising concerns about price competition and network neutrality (Noguchi, 2006). Some argue that a public-sector presence in the Internet service provider market adds competition and establishes a provider whose public obligation to treat all users equally would strengthen network neutrality (Dingwall, 2007).

The idea of expanding municipal wireless into a larger regional network has some conceptual of not practical precedent. The city of Luxembourg established HotCity, a municipal Wi-Fi network that covers half the city and serves 12,000 registered users with 200 Wi-Fi hotspots. The city plans to expand the network to serve 85,000 users with 450 hotspots by the end of this year. Ultimately, says Mayor Paul Helminger, the city aims to expand HotCity to the entire country and its half million residents and conceivably to nearby French and Belgian cities (Baritault, 2009).

Physically, any lessons from Luxembourg’s experience must be applied to rural South Dakota with caution: Luxembourg’s half million residents are packed together in just under than 1,000 square miles. South Dakota, the fifth least densely populated of the United States, has nearly 800,000 residents spread out across 76 times as much land, resulting in a population density barely one fiftieth of Luxembourg’s.

Nonetheless, Luxembourg appears to offer some useful lessons for establishing public wireless networks of municipal or regional scale. Recognizing that limiting users in choice of provider and services has been responsible for “the majority of failures in municipal network developments all over the world,” Luxembourg has sought to create a neutral and open network to support numerous services alongside a private network for city workers and free municipal information for citizens (Baritault, 2009). With a combination of free and subscription services (Internet access is €8 [10$US] per day, €17 [22$US] per month), Luxembourg demonstrates the ability of a public network to provide useful public services and generate a new revenue stream through provision of Internet access as a public utility.

TECHNOLOGICAL ISSUES

Various technologies may be put to use to provide ubiquitous municipal Internet access. Wi-Fi networks can provide good coverage, but as Aadikalam et al. point out, Wi-Fi does not support the quick handover necessary for highly mobile users. This shortcoming may limit use by emergency responders (Aadikalam et al., 2008, 21-22). Technologies such as EVDO and mobile WiMAX (802.16e-2005 amendment-see Marks, 2006, for clarification) can handle faster handover and thus could support use within moving vehicles.

Overall, the advantages of WiMAX over Wi-Fi appear to fit exactly the conditions necessary to bring municipal wireless to rural communities in South Dakota. “Although WiMAX threatens to overtake Wi-Fi as a stronger technology, in the long term WiMAX will likely complement Wi-Fi by providing more ubiquitous coverage, greater scalability, carrier-class functionality, and better support for mixed applications needs that require high security and quality of service” (Dingwall, 2007). A statewide collaborative network of community wireless networks certainly aims at ubiquitous and preferably mobile coverage. Communities adopting this technology certainly hope for the problem of scalability as they tout the network to increase tourism, business, and even population. A community-wide network would need to support a wide range of government, commercial, and residential applications. Public agencies, businesses, and private citizens sharing a network would have reasonable concerns about security. WiMAX appears to better address those concerns.

WiMAX is a line-of-sight technology well suited to the relatively flat urban and country landscapes of South Dakota. The scarcity of major hills, river valleys, and forested areas will allow for signals from urban transmitters to reach numerous rural residents beyond municipal boundaries that, in many rural communities are well under a kilometer in radius. IEEE 802.16 WiMAX standards provide for a service range of up to 50 km (Dingwall, 2007). In practice, Sioux Valley Wireless’s Madison WiMAX deployment has an advertised reach of ten miles (Clement, 2008). Sioux Valley obtains this reach with a single transmitter atop a twelve-story building, one of only four such structures in the city of comparable height (the others include a grain elevator complex and two water towers). The relative lack of tall buildings in South Dakota communities means fewer urban dead spots; however, it also poses challenges for siting WiMAX transmitters for optimal reach. Installing a WiMAX transmitter for municipal wireless at local schools, whose tallest structure may be a two- to three-story athletic complex, may require installing a radio tire on school grounds or arranging for extension of Internet backbone to the nearest grain elevator or water tower.

One obstacle to establishing a statewide collaborative municipal wireless network through WiMAX may be frequency licensing. A number of public school districts and universities in South Dakota hold educational broadband licenses for the 2.5-GHz frequency range, one of the main frequencies for WiMAX (Federal Communications Commission, 2009). Unfortunately, these schools are clustered in the eastern third of the state, suggesting coverage for the less densely populated areas of central and western South Dakota may depend on communities or the state obtaining licenses for other frequencies. Yet it is worth noting that for those public license holders, putting their frequencies to public use in a WiMAX-based municipal wireless network would satisfy an FCC requirement that EBS license holders make some substantive use of their spectrum holdings for the public good by May 1, 2011 (Teal, 2009).

map

Figure 1: Map of Broadband Radio/Educational Broadband Service Licenses
(Federal Communications Commission, 2009)

Another obstacle is access to the WiMAX signal. Few if any home computers are WiMAX-compatible. To reach the large number of Wi-Fi-ready computers, municipal WiMAX installations would still have to provide dispersed WiMAX modem-Wi-Fi router units. Numerous vendors began rolling out WiMAX-capable laptops in 2008 (Hamblen, 2008). A statewide deployment does gamble to some extent that the market will make available the necessary technology on the user end. There is the possibility, though, that a statewide deployment that follows a five-year timeframe like that of the turn-of-the-century project to wire the schools would coincide with market adoption of WiMAX receivers as standard wireless equipment on consumer electronics.

COST

Rick Rotondo, chief marketing officer at Spectrum Bridge, says that EBS license holders might need to spend one million dollars to meet the minimum requirements for putting their licensed spectrum to use (Teal, 2009). Of course, this estimate comes from a broker who has some motivation to encourage public and non-profit agencies to sell their licenses. If this figure is accurate, a project to deploy WiMAX infrastructure to 176 South Dakota communities might cost $176 million. In a state where the FY2010 funding for the Bureau of Information and Telecommunication and state support for technology in schools combined totals $17.6 million (South Dakota Legislature, 2009), such a new expenditure seems unworkable. However, thirteen years ago, the state faced initial cost estimates of $100 million for its plan to wire all schools for Internet. Undeterred, the state moved forward with the project and realized significant cost savings (as well as concomitant social benefits of job training) by executing the project with minimum-security prisoner labor (South Dakota Department of Corrections, 2009), with a final price tag of $15 million (Borja, 2002, p. 49). Funding need not come strictly from the state budget; city and county governments, school districts, and even local economic development organizations stand to benefit and could justify diverting some portion of their IT spending or even designating a new budget item to support this project.

BENEFITS

An extension of the statewide K-12 network to support municipal wireless Internet would serve most immediately to expand the educational mission existing educational technology was implemented to carry out. The school-to-home connection was promoted in early discussions of the initiative to wire the schools as a way to improve student and parent engagement (Janklow, 1998). Providing community-wide access to a unified network would facilitate the use of money-saving computing alternatives like netbooks and online software, which are already being explored by innovative school districts like Elkton and Madison (Heidelberger, 2009; Clement, 2009).

State support for a unified system of municipal wireless networks could jumpstart local efforts to establish online presences and functions for local governments. Rural communities are interested in establishing an online presence that can serve public officials and citizens alike. However, without dedicated IT staff, they can hardly afford to implement major systems of their own. Municipal networks built and supported by a central state agency would free local agencies and citizens to work on ways to put that new infrastructure to good public use.

A statewide municipal wireless initiative has significant marketing value. Visitors-not just business professionals and academics, but increasingly regular working-class tourists-rely on e-mail and other Web-based communications and expect that connectivity when they are on the road for business or pleasure. An entire state declaring itself a wireless hotspot would get those people’s attention. Investors looking to move or expand businesses would be impressed to tour a small community like Howard or Arlington and find freely available Internet everywhere in the city limits (and maybe several kilometers beyond).

CONCLUSION

South Dakota has shown the ability to be a leader in information technology. As more organizations and individuals integrate the Internet into their economic and personal activities, it is essential that South Dakota communities remain competitive in their ability to offer Internet access to residents, local businesses, tourists, and potential investors. A majority of South Dakota communities, with populations under 2,000, lack the personnel and resources to build their own municipal wireless networks and the population base to attract vendors to do so for them. But acting as a statewide community of 800,000 citizens, South Dakota state government and its numerous communities can combine existing IT infrastructure and talent with emerging technology to create what could be the largest public wireless Internet hotspot on the planet.

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