Telecom companies are wary as towns built their own wireless networks

PEPPERELL—This small, hilly town along the New Hampshire border is rural enough to boast that it doesn’t have a single traffic light (town officials don’t count the ones that constantly flash red), but this summer Pepperell quietly became the second municipality in the state to link all of its government buildings by means of a wireless computer network. By making the switch to wireless, Pepperell officials expect eventually to reap savings of up to $30,000 a year on Internet access and cell phone bills, or about 60 percent of their annual communications budget. That money is coming out of the pockets of the cable and phone companies that serve the town, but they would barely notice if not for a larger issue. What grabs their attention is the prospect of municipalities providing wireless broadband to residents and businesses as a public utility, like water. Though Pepperell officials insist that’s not on the horizon, the telecom industry is keeping a watchful eye on its turf.

Den Connors, the town’s systems administrator, believes that Pepperell is on the forefront of an accelerating trend in the state. “You are probably going to see a flood of [wireless] systems going in,” he says. “We’re just on the cusp, I think, of something that’s going to happen very quickly.”

Before deploying the new network, Pepperell purchased broadband service from the town’s only licensed cable company, Charter Communications, as well as DSL service over standard telephone lines from Verizon, the state’s largest phone company. But Bob Spain, director of government relations for Charter Communications, says he isn’t worried about everybody going wireless.

“Every technology has its limitations,” says Spain. “There are natural limitations to a radio signal, and that’s all we’re talking about here, a radio signal. There is no technology that can change nature—that’s just the laws of physics.”

Spain argues that Charter’s landline service is more practical, and more reliable, than wireless technology. And due to topography, size, and many other variables, he says, a wireless network may not be a viable solution for every municipality. “What works in Pepperell may not work in, say, Groton,” says Spain, referring to the town next door.

Wireless proponents acknowledge that the technology, which uses low-power radio waves, is marginally less sound than landline systems, in the same way that cell phones are subject to occasional blips in service even in the best coverage areas. But in the same breath they profess a belief that wireless, whatever its shortcomings, is the next great leap in telecommunications. They say that the advantages of wireless networks—their affordability, and their adaptability to areas large and small, urban and rural—will soon become self-evident. Connors, who moonlights as a wireless consultant for other towns, predicts that within three years, 30 to 50 municipalities in Massachusetts will deploy wireless networks for government use.

The skeleton of Pepperell’s new network consists of more than 30 diamond-shaped boxes attached to the roof of each municipal building. One box is roughly the size of a baseball base and contains an antenna and radio transmitter. Most sit atop slender 30-foot poles, akin to cell phone towers, but there is also one in the belfry of the historic town hall.

The signals bouncing among these boxes provide Internet access to all the buildings, at speeds ranging from 10 to 100 times faster than cable- or phone-based access. Among other features, the network includes an automatic data backup system and a telephone system, known as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), that has replaced landlines at some buildings. Video cameras and alarm systems that can be used to monitor buildings from a remote location will be added in a second phase, and will simplify the duties of the town’s public safety and public works departments—for example, by freeing personnel from having to make regular trips to check on unstaffed facilities.

Though this may sound futuristic, the network is essentially an off-the-shelf, do-it-yourself project. The town purchased much of the hardware from a company in Littleton, and Connors and other town employees were able to perform most of the installation themselves. The only part of the job they can’t do is climb any tower taller than 100 feet, which requires special certification and insurance.

Although the network has made life easier for town employees, it was installed primarily to save money. Late last year Connors was in the process of buying cable (that is, wired) modems for the town, and he began comparing the price of that service to the wireless hardware available from various vendors on the Internet. “It became very obvious that it would simply be cheaper for a town the size of Pepperell to go out and install this gear in one shot,” Connors recalls.

Each of the 30-plus radio installations costs about $1,500. Add the various other network components, and the total cost of the hardware is roughly $120,000 to $130,000, an investment Connors expects the town to recover in about three years. Even allowing for the occasional lightning strike, repair and maintenance costs are expected to be fairly low. The primary maintenance expense will be upgrading certain network components when they become obsolete—that is, when newly available equipment works even faster—in five or six years. But Connors seems confident that the network as a whole will have a long life.

While they have yet to catch on in Massachusetts, wireless networks for municipal use are up and running in more than 50 locales across the United States, ranging in size from Las Vegas to towns with just a few thousand residents. Large states like California, Michigan, and Florida are each home to several cities, towns, or counties with municipal wireless networks, and even Vermont boasts half a dozen communities that have or are planning to deploy them.

Massachusetts has been fashionably late to the municipal wireless party, with the notable exception of Malden. With no fanfare, that city installed a wireless network for municipal use about 18 months ago, making it the first municipality in the state to do so. Pepperell, roughly five times smaller than Malden, is only the second municipality in Massachusetts to go wireless, and is leading a small pack of towns and cities also considering the switch.

n addition, some towns are considering the idea of providing wireless service to all residents, not just town employees, and that is not welcome news for providers of broadband and cable Internet access. In a town blanketed with a public wireless network, residents would no longer be tethered to an Internet connection in their home. They could log onto the Web at high speeds anywhere and anytime, via laptop computers, personal digital assistants, and other wireless devices.

Many towns and cities across the country already feature these so-called ubiquitous networks, and several more are planned, most notably in Philadelphia. Pepperell has no plans to add a public network any time soon—town officials are emphatic on that point—but several other Bay State municipalities are thinking about it. Brookline is studying the feasibility of deploying a public townwide network and a municipal network simultaneously, an option Newton has also looked into, and Nantucket hopes to have a network up by early fall that will cover the entire island. Malden, ahead of the curve once again, has already launched a citywide network that allows all residents with computers and PDA devices to access municipal and community Web sites, even those who otherwise have no access to the Internet. The municipal sites may not reach a lot of new people—how many computer owners don’t have Internet access these days?—but in terms of hardware, Malden is most of the way toward being able to provide complete wireless service for all residents.

A number of the communities nationwide that have deployed wireless networks for public access have done so in conjunction with private companies, but most operate the service as a public utility. Residents pay subscription fees, often at below-market rates, directly to the municipality instead of a phone or cable company. This model brings in revenue for the municipality, but public officials also hold it up as a tool for economic development and a way of bridging what is referred to as the “digital divide”—the different rates of Internet access in urban vs. rural areas, and in high- vs. low-income households.

Officially, the phone and cable companies are not concerned about the arrival of municipalities in the broadband business. “We are confident in our ability to compete,” says Jack Hoey, a spokesman for Verizon in Massachusetts. “There is a lot of competition out there, and we would take very seriously competition from a municipality. But this is something we do for a living. We would compete vigorously, and offer what we think would be a better service.”

Still, the telecom industry is not sitting on its hands. With varying success, phone and cable companies have been lobbying legislators on both the state and national level to pass laws limiting municipal telecommunications services. In Pennsylvania, Verizon and Comcast led a lobbying effort that resulted in the passage of a law last December that gives telecom companies the right of first refusal to provide broadband in any municipality that wants to offer the service —essentially limiting municipal wireless networks to sparsely settled areas where it is not profitable for telecom companies to install cable. (Philadelphia was exempted from the law through a grandfather clause.) Since then, at least three other states have passed laws effectively curtailing municipal broadband.

At the federal level, US Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Dallas and a former phone company executive, introduced a bill in May that would prohibit municipalities from selling telecommunications services in any area where a private company provides a comparable service. Less than a month later, senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) countered with a bill that preserves the right of municipalities to offer broadband. (Both bills were still pending as of early September.)

So far, no legislation on municipal wireless service has been proposed in Massachusetts. State legislators and telecom company spokesmen both say that they are waiting to see what happens. In the meantime, the pending showdown in Congress and the somewhat uncertain regulatory landscape has led to mutual wariness on the part of private companies and local governments.

That wariness is certainly present in Pepperell. The town administrator, Robert Hanson, downplays the significance of the town’s new network and chooses his words carefully when discussing it. Shortly after an article in The Boston Globe raised the possibility of a townwide network—and after Hanson subsequently received what he described as a “cautious” phone call from Charter Communications—Hanson and Connors stressed that they have no intention of adding a public network. Hanson all but dismisses the idea outright, as a matter of fact, and is quick to point out the potential legal issues involved.

“Under the current state of the law, there is not even a proven right on the part of a municipality to do that, even if we wanted to,” Hanson says. “I’m not sure there’s anything that says you can’t do it. On the other hand, there isn’t anything that says you can. It’s my understanding that the issue is still unsettled.”

he sudden affordability and accessibility of wireless technology has upended the discussion to some extent, but there is a precedent in Massachusetts for municipalities to offer broadband. State law explicitly allows the 40 or so towns that provide electricity to their residents as a public utility also to sell telecommunications services. A handful of the towns with these so-called municipal lighting plants, such as Braintree, do sell cable broadband, but it is unclear how the law might translate to wireless service. When the law was passed in 2000, wireless network technology was in its infancy, and few people could have foreseen that any and every town would be in a position to sell Internet access through the air.

Though technologically feasible, a public wireless network might still be a long way off for a small town like Pepperell. A small network for municipal use offers considerable savings for a local government, but the customer service and other administrative tasks required to run a public network might prove prohibitive.

That said, Den Connors will tell you that whatever logistical and regulatory hurdles stand between towns like Pepperell and public wireless networks are no match for the momentum of the technology and the growing importance of broadband. In time, Connors predicts, municipalities will recognize that high-speed Internet access is as essential as any other public utility.

Meet the Author
“It’s just so much a part of everyday life nowadays,” he says. “It’s like electricity, it’s like the telephone. You’ve got to provide it.”

Ray Hainer is a freelance writer based in Boston.