Big Apple goes wireless

Communications network would be largest citywide mobile network in U.S.

Getting connected

NYC's wireless network will link:


  • 15,000 first responders

  • 8,000 traffic signals

  • 1,500 wireless call boxes

"We will have to determine whether it is the right time for us to enter a particular market for a particular technology." ? NYC's Gino Menchini

New York next month will choose at least one contractor to test technologies as a first step toward building a citywide, mobile wireless communications network.

The nine-year project would go far beyond the wireless pilot projects under way in most U.S. cities, creating the largest mobile wireless network at the municipal level in the nation, according to analysts and industry observers.

"It is the first of its kind," said Royce Kincaid, program manager for wireless and homeland security with Northrop Grumman Corp.'s information technology unit in Herndon, Va. "We know for a fact that most of the other major cities are looking to see how New York City does this."

But wireless experts question whether the Big Apple is doing the right thing by awarding a multiyear deal at a time when the technology is evolving at an extremely rapid pace. They predicted that city officials may find themselves locked into a long-term contract in which advances in wireless technologies related to efficiency and effectiveness outpace the network.

This also poses a challenge to integrators, because they must come up with a plan to keep the technology fresh when it may advance by one or two generations before the contract expires, analysts said.

'THE RIGHT TIME FOR US'

Gino Menchini, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, acknowledged the challenge.

"We will have to determine whether it is the right time for us to enter a particular market for a particular technology," he said.

Menchini declined to say how much the project will cost, but others have estimated that it will run anywhere from several hundred million dollars to more than $1 billion.

Robert Hicks, transportation and public safety program director for Public Technologies Institute, a Washington non-profit technology research and development organization, said Wi-Fi generally is less expensive than wired alternatives from a capital investment standpoint. However, operational costs are hard to estimate in the absence of an evaluation of a large-scale deployment, he said.

The companies in the running for the contract are IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.; Motorola Inc., Schaumberg, Ill.; and Northrop Grumman IT, according to an industry source close to the project. Menchini declined to identify any finalists, but said 10 companies had bid on the project.

Officials at IBM and Northrop Grumman IT confirmed their companies are bidding on the contract, but IBM declined to comment for the story. Motorola could not be reached for comment.

The city will make multiple awards in February for the first phase of the project, which will begin later this year, Menchini said. Once those tests are completed, the city will evaluate the different technologies before selecting the vendor for the second phase of the project, he said.

The systems integrator that is chosen to complete the system will be responsible for designing, constructing, managing and maintaining the wireless networks to satisfy the requirements of public safety and other municipal agencies.

The integrator will train city employees to operate the network and provide the site management and network operations services to the extent necessary for the network to be adequately tested and taken over by city staff.

City officials will decide at a later date whether they want the integrator to provide site management and operations services through the entire life of the contract, according to solicitation documents.

BIG CITY, BIG REQUIREMENTS

The contract has stringent requirements for coverage, security and transmission speed, Menchini said. The network initially would support several different categories of users, including upward of 15,000 first responders, 8,000 traffic signals and 1,500 wireless call boxes operated by the police.

The network would allow the city to eliminate some of the leased lines that run the traffic signals. "We expect those will be moved off of the cellular network and onto the wireless network at some point," Menchini said.

The network eventually might support other mobile forces deployed throughout the city such as various field inspectors, he said. The total network construction will take between 18 to 24 months, Menchini said.

"I believe that they could get a good chunk of it done" in that time frame, said Shawn McCarthy, senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities with market research firm IDC of Framingham, Mass. But converting the traffic lights and emergency call boxes could take longer, he said.

Public Technologies Institute's Hicks said that the matter of technology obsolescence is a key issue for a project of such duration.

"They don't want to invest in something that isn't going to work in a few years," Hicks said. "So whatever they pick, they want a solution that can migrate to the next level of technology."

The city should protect itself in the contract to keep ahead of the technology, McCarthy said.

"The contracts should be written to include a periodic technology refresh that allows them to bring in the latest and greatest equipment and to renegotiate prices as commodity hardware prices fall," he said.

The city will pay particular attention to how the bidders plan to refresh the technology over the life of the contract, Menchini said

Northrop Grumman's Kincaid said the wireless market is changing rapidly, and that the company has addressed the matter head-on in its bid.

"We picked a solution for which there is a well-defined technology road map for the next 10 years," he said.

Many cities are deploying Wi-Fi mesh networks in their pilot projects, McCarthy said. The approach is effective because it allows for enough installations to provide nearly complete coverage for a region, he said.

The mesh approach is particularly well-suited to New York, where the urban canyon terrain can cause coverage problems, he said.

"The fact that the buildings are so dense makes this necessary," McCarthy said.

And since it can be difficult for wireless signals to penetrate steel and concrete, the signal strength of individual units might be an issue for New York, he said.

"It may be that they expect more powerful units to arrive before the project is completed, which could considerably broaden the coverage area for individual hubs," McCarthy said.

These might come in the form of Wi-Max stations for which a mesh or grid approach is also feasible, he said. At this stage in its development, Wi-Max is a more expensive alternative, but that could change in a few years, he said.

"All you need is a shift in a price point, and one approach can be more attractive than another," he said.

Senior Writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

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