Oak Bluffs considers wiring itself
The town of Oak Bluffs spends more than $100,000 each year to communicate. With phone lines, data lines, Internet access, alarm lines, police cruisers checking records, it gets expensive. But the town is building a private network that could carry many of those communications without using phone or cable company lines. The goal is to cut communications costs by half, in one or two years.
And, oh, by the way, if you live in Oak Bluffs, you get free Internet service as a bonus. In fact, you may already have it.
"Obviously we want to be friendly to our visitors," said information technology manager Travis Larsen. "We want people to stay, we want people to eat in the restaurants, but a big push for this, is we're also using it to save on some of our recurring costs." Mr. Larsen estimates that once the town is wired, the upfront costs of equipment, labor, and maintenance for the new network will be offset by the reduced cost of communications in less than five years.
With little fanfare, the town rolled out a pilot program this past summer that broadcast a free Internet signal covering a small area at the foot of Circuit Avenue. The cost to implement the pilot was $5,000. They didn't tell anyone it was there, but hundreds of people found it on their own, and now use it regularly. If all goes according to plan, the second phase of the project will be activated later this month, at a cost of $20,000. That signal will cover most of the downtown business district, roughly an arc from the waterfront, around Ocean Park, up to the old town library on Pennacook Avenue, and most of the Martha's Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association grounds. Though the later phases will take considerably more time, the town hopes to eventually provide free Internet service to nearly all of its residents.
Municipal wireless Internet service is no simple thing. Large scale projects in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Toronto have run into political, regulatory, and economic brick walls. Large private companies like Google and Earthlink have recently pulled out of projects, leaving them partially finished. In several cases, cost estimates proved woefully low, and promises of universal Internet access proved a far bigger technical challenge than anticipated.
Some smaller scale projects have run into similar problems, but there are a growing number of small cities and towns that are making wireless work. Oak Bluffs is modeling its project after those that have proved most successful, where small, densely settled towns with no high buildings or high hills allow for simpler technology, and where initial costs are offset or entirely covered through savings in other recurring communications costs.
"The biggest thing is baby steps," said Mr. Larsen. "We're not trying to rush through it."
The antennae that broadcast the wireless Internet signal will be located on town-owned buildings, wherever possible. The first two went on top of the police station, and on the information kiosk at the foot of Circuit Avenue. Two more will be installed on the Ocean Park bandstand, and at another location near the top of Circuit Avenue.
Oak Bluffs has contracted with Single Digits of Manchester, N.H., to install, maintain, and support the Internet network. GovConnection is the company that supplies hardware for the project.
The companies are confident, following a successful pilot phase, that the project will not fall victim to the pitfalls that have doomed other projects.
"It's much easier," said George Reichenberg, business development manager for Single Digits. "There is a purpose for it, and it's a focused project."
Single Digits has managed smaller scale Internet projects for several New England cities and towns. In Pittsfield, New Hampshire, the town administrator says the system is working well, over the town's small business district. "They've established basic wi-fi for our downtown," said town administrator Leon Kenison. "We're in the early stages of that. We're hopeful it will draw more downtown business."
While free Internet service may be the most visible part of the project to most people, to those involved with the project, it is an ancillary benefit. "It's pretty amazing what you can do, once you have a town-wide wireless network," said Mr. Larsen.
Imagine, for example, a police officer showing a series of mug shots to a crime victim just minutes after the crime, from the laptop in a police cruiser. Imagine the fire department getting a real time reading on water pressure at each of the hydrants near a fire scene. Or imagine an ambulance driver who can instantly assess the quickest way to the hospital by viewing a series of traffic cams from the dashboard of the vehicle. Technologically, at least, all those things may be possible in the very near future.
Currently, Oak Bluffs police cruisers are equipped with modems, which use phone lines to connect with criminal records, motor vehicle records, and the Dukes County communication center. The town would like to equip all ambulances and fire vehicles with similar technology, but the cost is a drawback. Town officials estimate it would cost more than $7,000 annually just for the communication technology to connect the vehicles.
The municipal wireless project would eliminate those costs. The only expense would be the original cost of building the network, and maintenance of it.
The wastewater district currently uses phone lines to monitor all of its critical equipment with alarm systems. The district commissioners are seriously considering whether to fund part of the municipal wireless project, because it would eliminate the annual cost of phone lines, and save money in the long run.
"Right now, we're spending about $15,000 per year," said Joe Alosso, wastewater plant manager. "We're looking at getting away from that. We would get on the pilot, but just do a couple of lines, and make sure the system is reliable. If the reliability is there, we'll take advantage of it."
Mr. Larsen, a 27-year-old Chilmark native who returned to the Island "because it's home," after getting a computer engineering degree at Boston University, has been thinking about a municipal wireless project for some time. He says the project got kick-started last fall when the town faced a budget crisis, and began looking for ways to cut operating costs. Given the wireless municipal projects large and small that have gone wrong, he is under no illusions about the barriers ahead. But he is confident Oak Bluffs can get it right, without burdening the taxpayers.
"They sky's the limit, once it's built out. It's just getting there. Baby steps, baby steps," said Mr. Larsen. "That's why we're not going to fail."