Monday, July 28, 2008

Cities Gone Wireless: Safety or Surveillance?

While some cities have seen their dreams of providing wireless Internet access for all fade, others have forged ahead with wireless networks for an altogether different purpose: surveillance.

Municipal surveillance is no longer confined to isolated street corners. Cities are mapping out vast wireless zones to create safety nets. Oklahoma City just rolled out the world's largest municipal network, linking hundreds of video surveillance cameras installed across the city. Such networks also extend to public transportation: Chicago has installed the largest network of bus surveillance in the U.S., with cameras on its entire fleet of more than 2,100 buses.

A few years ago, many cities plunged head-first into providing free wireless to the masses — especially to low-income communities — as a way of bridging the digital divide and marketing themselves to Internet startups. That didn't pan out so well in Philadelphia, which saw its much-publicized partnership with Earthlink collapse last year after the Internet service provider decided to exit the municipal wireless business.

Today, public safety is the "largest and most successful sector" in the municipal wireless market, according to, a Web site devoted to tracking wireless broadband projects and technologies. Its 2007 state of the market report found that 75 percent of cities and towns with active or planned wireless networks were using them for public safety purposes. That represents a 10 percent increase from 2006.

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