The era of the Smart City is here.
No, I am not weighing the intelligence of our population against those of other cities, but I am weighing how well prepared we are to fully engage in the digital world.
One way is through free access to high-speed Internet – for all. In the early 2000s, you couldn’t go 100 miles without another city trying to be the “WiMax Umbrella” city of the future. That concept fell off the radar, however, generally due to regulations in the utility industry and the economics of posting expensive routers every few yards.
But fast, free Internet access for all is an idea that has not waned. Many cities are advancing their economic development and tourism brand by offering ubiquitous Internet access. The advantages of connecting to social media, email and the Web from anywhere – not just inside a coffee shop that requires a password – are too compelling to ignore. You see it in more and more progressive cities:
Heading to New York? Soon, all their old phone booths will be turned into free WiFi hotspots.
Heading to Portugal on vacation? Just hop on a city bus in Porto to get your free WiFi fix.
Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson called his city’s wireless network “a beneficial economic development tool” that can “enhance tourism in our great city.”
Dennis Newman, chief information officer in Winston-Salem, said that the city’s municipal wireless has “made downtown appealing” in a way it hadn’t been before.
Imagine Riverwalk lit up: what economic impact might that have for Wilmington?
The results in other cities are pretty astounding. That bus system in Porto, Portugal? Seventy percent of the city’s smartphone owners have used it. And what’s more impressive is that the city – which funds a portion of the project – is able to gather key data that helps the municipality run more efficiently.
The benefits are almost innumerable.
- In Minneapolis, the public WiFi system helped emergency workers locate people after the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge.
- Huntsville, Alabama, has deployed WiFi on school buses, and saw a drop in discipline reports by 70 percent.
- The city of Buffalo, N.Y., recently announced free WiFi for downtown, with Mayor Brown pointing to its function as a driver to make Buffalo become a “thriving engine of opportunity for all city residents,” highlighting those entrepreneurs creating jobs.
This isn’t done easily with cellular networks – it is at least 20 times more expensive to send data through cellular connections than it is through WiFi. And frankly, mobile phones are simply tracking beacons, broadcasting use location and saving every text or picture sent.
But it can easily and inexpensively be done with fixed wireless networks, where reliable, high bandwidth is distributed by towers, wirelessly. It is secure; it’s the same technology the armed forces deploy overseas. And it’s reliable, because there are no cables to cut and no satellite signals to go out during storms.
We think it’s time to start the conversation again about metro Internet for the Cape Fear region. Are we ready for a 21st-century downtown? Are you ready for WiFi to become a public utility – not a commercial commodity?
Let us know … we’re gathering your comments, and hope to drive further discussion that may expand from downtown throughout the “greater” Wilmington area.