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.
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.