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Intel Tries To Spur Wireless Cities Momentum

Intel is pushing an effort to get cities to adopt Wi-Fi.
What if you could watch news on your cell phone while waiting for the subway in the morning? Or how about an emergency worker accessing and sending medical data in real-time using a handheld? It's mostly pie-in-the-wireless-sky at the moment, given the lack of wireless infrastructure in most cities. They're the kind of applications, though, that are drivers behind Intel's Digital Communities initiative, which it launched Thursday hoping to increase cities' adoption of wireless technology.

Thirteen pilot cities have already jumped on the opportunity and Intel says that number is expected to grow to 100 over the next year.

Intel is working with Cisco, Dell, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, and several other IT vendors that will build applications for these cities. Intel is sending out architects to work with regional governments to create blueprints for citywide wireless networks and services. "Our vision is to unwire the communities and layer on services and applications on top of [their wireless networks] to make life better for people," said Anand Chandrasekher, VP and director of Intel's sales and marketing group, during a news conference.

As is often the case with wireless efforts, the leading-edge examples lie outside the United States. Taipei, Taiwan, which has a population of 2.6 million people, plans to cover all 105 square miles of the city by installing more than 10,000 wireless access points by early next year. "We have embarked on a very ambitious plan to establish the first ever wireless city in the world," said Taipei's mayor Ying-jeou Ma. So far, 63 subway stations have wireless access points, which means anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop, pocket PC, PDA, cell phone, or another mobile device can get Internet access while waiting for the subway. Taipei wants to let residents access key city agencies and offices via the Internet.

In the United States, Corpus Christi, Texas, is deploying a wireless network made up of Tropos Networks Inc.'s mesh technology and Pronto Networks Inc.'s security and management software. About 70% of the city's workers don't work from an office, and the wireless network is intended to help them. A building inspector, for example, could update permit data from a construction site using a mobile device, rather than a paper-based process. City officials envision police cars equipped with IBM computers that can deliver streaming video will help monitor incidents as they take place. Ultimately, the wireless network will span 147 square miles of the city, says Skip Noe, Corpus Christi's city manager.

Cleveland, Ohio, also initially is focusing on rolling out services for its mobile workers. The city implemented an online-permitting application that automated workflows of 500 employees and allows them to file reports, schedule inspections, and issue permits from the field wirelessly. Cleveland also will open up its wireless network to include applications for police officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel, as well as city residents and businesses, said Cleveland's mayor Jane Campbell.

Taipei, Cleveland, and Corpus Christi are among a growing number of cities that have started deploying extensive wireless networks. Just this week, San Francisco announced plans to provide wireless broadband access to all San Franciscans at no cost or minimal cost. Cities that have been the most aggressive in pushing to provide wireless access for their citizens, such as Philadelphia, have faced challenges from telecom providers, who are lobbying so they won't be competing with taxpayer-funded, low-cost wireless broadband.

These cities have a while to go before they can be truly labeled as wireless. "It's not difficult to have a wireless environment in a McDonald's, a Starbucks, or a university, but covering a city of 2.6 million people is not easy," says Ma, Taipei's mayor. One of the major challenges is securing these citywide networks to make sure confidential information doesn't get into the wrong hands. Another challenge is providing ubiquitous coverage across these large areas. Additionally, both Cleveland and Corpus Christi are focusing first on the public sector, which means residents and businesses have yet to benefit from these wireless networks.