Eye on the States: Lessons in wireless from the little guys

Thomas Davies, Senior Vice President at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va.

If you only watch the big guys ? those state and local governments with the billion-dollar budgets ? you can miss out on a lot in this market.

Often, true innovation happens first in small and medium jurisdictions typically well outside the mainstream. Take your eyes off these buyers, and you can be blind-sided by what's coming down the pike.

This is certainly what has been happening with wireless. Over the past year or so, small local governments across the country ? many so remote, you need a good map to find them ? have been quietly experimenting with wireless technologies.

At first, their geographical remoteness worked against them. These locations lacked access to the electronic infrastructure needed to be fully connected governments in a digital world.

But by deploying wireless technologies, they are now more connected than most of their larger peers, a "necessity is the mother of invention" story if ever there was one.

This was apparent at the very first Local Government WiFi Summit, recently held in Corpus Christi, Texas. Many of these innovative cities and counties came together with the evangelists in the wireless industry to ponder the future of wireless in local government.

Public Technology Inc., a national, non-profit technology research and development organization in Washington, said the event's mission was to bring the benefits of technology to local governments.

Public Technology's members, including those in the Washington area, such as Montgomery County and Gaithersburg, Md., and Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia, have a well-deserved reputation for being some of the most innovative local governments anywhere.

Small local governments such as Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Midland, Texas, are leading in deploying new wireless technologies. Less constrained by legacy environments, rule-bound procedures and sprawling bureaucracies, they have been among the first in government to initiate wireless pilots and bring wireless services to their governments, citizens and businesses.

These early innovators have set the stage for the next round of local government wireless innovation that is being led by medium to large cities, including Corpus Christi, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

It's clear that in a post-Sept. 11 world, no one wants to build wireless stovepipes. Most cities and counties are taking an enterprise approach to wireless. Although initial projects may be small and limited in scope, the goal is eventually to provide citywide and countywide ? if not regional ? wireless services.

Local governments can't do it all by themselves. Besides getting assistance from wireless infrastructure technology companies, the integrators are starting to help them, too. Northrop Grumman Corp., for example, recently won two contracts ? one from Corpus Christi, and the other from Hartford, Conn. ? to deploy a mobile, automated water meter reading solution.

Once the system is implemented fully, these governments can cut operating costs significantly by redeploying the people responsible for reading meters. At the same time, they improve the quality of government services by reducing errors in reading and enhance overall worker safety.

This is just the beginning. Over the next few years, every core business application of local government will be restructured to support wireless.

Local governments will make sure they keep up in the race to be a "hot" county or city. Some traditional technology companies, especially the communications service providers, will need to move quickly to keep pace.

The mobility race in local government has begun, and there is no turning back. n

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va. His e-mail address is tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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