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GovTech Covers Famous Free Wi-Fi in Oklahoma

Ponca City's free Wi-Fi has attracted attention over the years. A recent article in Government Technology focuses on the free Wi-Fi service and reveals the secret behind Ponca City's jewel - their municipal fiber network. 

From the article:

So what makes Ponca City’s wireless network a long-term success, and what suggestions do city officials have for other areas that want to replicate it?

It all starts with fiber, said Technology Services Director Craige Baird and City Manager Craig Stephenson. But fiber’s price tag stops many local governments in their tracks, especially when they want to do it in a year instead of building a network out slowly over a number of years.

As we reported earlier this year, Pona City's wireless is supported and funded by its fiber network. The community began the incremental installation in 1997, adding more each year; the network is now over 350 miles long. Revenue from commercial customers supply the funds for the wireless mesh network.

Residents can use the basic service for free and a modest investment optimizes their access:

While the network can be accessed by wireless-enabled devices throughout the city, residents can install a Wi-Fi modem in their house to receive a stronger signal indoors. The optional modem, called a Pepwave, costs about $150 and comes set up to connect to the free public network. The city got local computer stores to stock and support the devices, and in so doing, helped those businesses.

The service has also had wider reaching benefits:

During the recent recession, the $30 to $70 per month residents had previously paid to commercial Internet service providers stayed in Ponca City, helping “churn the economy,” Stephenson said.

In addition, Stephenson and Baird cited the network as a huge benefit to the schools and career technology center to help train and keep students in the area for economic development. Eighth-graders up through high school have electronic textbooks, laptops or notebooks, said Stephenson, “and that was only possible because everyone inside the city limits has Internet access.”

Ponca City Fiber: Serving Businesses, Schools, and Offering Free Wi-Fi

Its extensive free Wi-Fi has brought Ponca City into the limelight but the mesh network did not appear overnight. The community effort began with miles of fiber network that provide connectivity and enable the mesh network financially and technically.

Ponca City, home to 25,000, is located on Oklahoma's north central border; Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Wichita are all more than 90 miles away. The petroleum industry flourished in Ponca City until the oil bust in the 1990s and the population began to decline as workers moved away. Community leaders sought ways to salvage the local economy through economic development. They began to focus on the technology, manufacturing, and service industries.

The municipal electric department, Ponca City Energy, installed the first five miles of fiber in 1997 and five more in 1999 to connect outlying municipal buildings to City Hall. Line crews from the utility and the City Technology Services Department handled all installation to keep expenses down. The City continued to add to the network incrementally, exapanding it to over 350 miles. The network also serves the City's SCADA system.

In 2003, Ponca City Energy connected the local schools, and the Ponca City Medical Center to the network. The network also began providing Internet to the University Learning Center of Northern Oklahoma, now named the University Center at Ponca City. The Center collaborates with thirteen higher education institutions to provide distance learning in 48 online degree programs.

Ponca City eventually began offering Internet access via the fiber to commercial customers. According to Craige Baird, Technology Services Director, most businesses in the community purchase Internet access from the City. Revenue from commercial Internet customers, approximately $36,000 per month, pays for the wireless mesh network.

In 2008, Ponca City installed the wireless network for the City's public safety entities. The wireless complement allowed employees in the field to immediately transfer information that in the past required a drive back to the office. In addition to police and fire, employees such as electrical linemen, ambulance attendents, and code enforcement officers use the network. The City connected 25 percent of its 500 wireless routers to the fiber optic network, creating a robust mesh with ample bandwidth over 150 square miles. The City chose to use the excess bandwidth to provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

Wi-Fi logo

City officials estimate the network saves residents almost $4 million a year in Internet fees. Over 17,000 people use the free service, allowing them to keep more dollars in the local economy. The Wi-fi speeds range from 7 - 12 Mbps download. The network will support the community's upcoming technology plan to supply laptops and tablets for students. 

The City has also implemented a virtual desktop solution, allowing city employees to access their desktop from any Internet connection. To insure redundancy, the City has mutual fiber lines between its server rooms and its Disaster Recovery site, located miles away. The City received a 2013 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League for its infrastructure and disaster recovery. From the Oklahoma Municipal League announcement:

Overall, Ponca City has started the technology move over twelve years ago with the first installation of fiber optic cable. But now that basic installation has grown to provide the backbone for an entire network that provides services not only to the employees but to the citizens and businesses in Ponca City. Technology will continue to be an important part of Ponca City’s future.

Oklahoma Free Wi-fi: Can Muskogee Follow Ponca City's Lead?

Muskogee, located in east central Oklahoma, is considering free Wi-Fi across the community to boost economic development. As a model, community leaders are looking at Ponca City. A recent Muskogee Phoenix article quoted the Interim City Manager:

“Our hope is that the public Wi-Fi initiative will distinguish us from other cities when it comes to attracting economic development, all the way from retail to industrial,” Interim City Manager Roy Tucker said. It “will most certainly increase the quality of life and educational opportunities of our citizens.”

Local citizens developed the Action in Muskogee (AIM) initiative to improve the community; the idea to provide free Wi-Fi grew out of the initiative. Muskogee hopes a Wi-Fi network will also improve public safety, government efficiency, and Internet access for citizens.

AIM participants hope to emulate Ponca City and its award-winning mesh network. City officials installed the wireless network in 2008. Residents of Ponca City save an estimated $3.9 million a year in avoided ISP costs. In other words, the network helps keep $3.9 million in the Ponca City economy.

Ponca City began its network in 1997 with a few miles of fiber to improve communications between municipal facilities. Each year the network grew and Ponca City now has over 350 miles of fiber. Municipal facilities, schools, hospitals, healthcare clinics, businesses, and even casinos use the fiber network. According to the article, Ponca City sells Internet access via the fiber to local business customers to fund the mesh network and free Wi-Fi for the community.

Muskogee has no plans to install a publicly owned fiber network like Ponca City's. Another Phoenix article suggested Muskogee leaders may pursue a public-private arrangement:

“Our intent is to partner with an Internet service provider, such as Suddenlink, to provide this service,” Tucker said. “And I don’t think the speeds we will be able to deliver — at least initially — will match what people can get through their regular providers.”

Ponca City has installed over 500 wireless routers covering 150 square miles. While the buzz focuses on their wireless mesh achievement, we want to point to Ponca City's significant fiber footprint. The fiber network provides necessary backhaul for the Wi-Fi network. Without the revenue it generates through business services, free Wi-Fi would probably not be available to the community. Ponca City leveraged their fiber asset to benefit the entire community several times over.

Community Broadband Praised for Helping Small Businesses

Writing for the American Express Open Forum, author Jack Shultz helped to compile a list of what he considers the best small towns for business in the U.S.

Ponca City made the list and was specifically singled out for the wireless network owned by the City:

This town has a very progressive economic development organization. They even have their own Youtube video promoting Ponca City as the place to locate your business. The city’s history has been shaped by the petroleum industry since Conoco Oil once had their headquarters here. Now, they highlight their fast-track permitting, workforce training, state and local incentive programs and a completely wireless community. [emphasis in original]

A local article in Ponca City News notes,

All residents in the city limits of Ponca City have access to free Wi-Fi adding to the ease of web-based business and small start-ups.

As we have noted many times, publicly owned broadband networks can play an important role in economic development strategies.

Ponca City Residents Get Upgrade to Free Wi-Fi Network

Ponca City, Oklahoma, has long allowed residents to use a city-owned Wi-Fi network at no charge. They make no promises regarding speed or ability to access the network inside the home because the network primarily serves the needs of police, fire, and other municipal departments.

We briefly wrote about this network in our Breaking the Broadband Monopoly report:

Ponca City, with a population of 25,000, took a different approach to their wireless network than Oklahoma City. With some 75% of their staff having at least one responsibility outside the office, building a wireless network was an obvious decision. The network provides additional safety to police officers – who have cameras that may be monitored from the station in real time in case of problems. City employees can now use VOIP phones instead of the cellular network, which has significant gaps in coverage throughout the city. Like Oklahoma City, reducing cellular charges has created considerable savings.

They also chose a Wi-Fi mesh system because it provides durability even if some of the nodes fail – the network routes around the problem. They started with some 500 wireless nodes to cover thirty square miles but have since decided to expand the network across a larger footprint.

Ponca City is somewhat unique in its decision to open spare capacity on the network to the public for no charge, in an effort to help those who could not afford Internet access on their own. Like Oklahoma City, they too received an award for their network – the 2009 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League.

The City upgraded the network last Tuesday night to double the available capacity:

Since the City of Ponca City installed free Wi-Fi, the number of users and the amount of Internet used has surpassed anyone's expectations.

The current number of unique users is more than 10,000 a day with more than 800 Gigabytes of Internet used in one day.

This is more wireless Internet than anywhere else in the United States, Ponca City's Technology Services Director Craige Baird said.

Smart Grid Updates - Chattanooga and Ponca City

Communities with both smart-grid investments as well as community networks are again in the news, this time featuring Chattanooga, Leesburg, and Ponca City. Thanks to my colleague at EnergySelfReliantStates.org, who posted this item. ESRS publishes original content about decentralized renewable energy - mostly of a quantitative nature using charts.

Perhaps one of the reasons the broadband networks run by public power utilities are so much more reliable than those run by telco and cablecos is the many decades that public power companies have focused intently on reliability.

Reliability is a good economic development tool, he said. One business looking at Chattanooga asked about the cost of a redundant feed. After EPB explained its smart grid plans, the company chose Chattanooga and decided it didn’t need a redundant feed, he said. In talking to businesses, "I can tell you ... that they get it and they get the importance of this level of automation."

The article offered more details about Ponca City's wireless network that we had previously not discussed. In addition to offering free Wi-Fi to residents, the Ponca City offers fiber-optic-based broadband to local businesses... and two are quite connected.

Perhaps the most eye-opening benefit is that Ponca City offers all of its 26,000 citizens free WiFi service. The city uses its fiber network to sell broadband services to businesses (one has requested 300 mbps service) and those sales pay for the free WiFi, Baird said. The network is basically support-free, said Baird, adding that he gets one or two calls per week. And the free WiFi is "a huge economic development draw," he said.

Tropos Comments on Publicly Owned Wireless Networks

Publication Date: 
November 6, 2009
Author(s): 
Tropos Networks

Tropos is a California-based company that sells wireless networking gear, frequently to municipalities. They filed comments with the FCC regarding the National Broadband Plan in response to the request: "Comment Sought on the Contribution of Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government to Broadband."

We fully support their framing of the issue:

Municipalities that own and control their wireless broadband networks, operate public services more efficiently, prioritize broadband traffic for emergencies, and put unused bandwidth to use to attract new businesses, afford educational opportunities to students and in many cases, provide free broadband access to unserved or underserved residents.

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