FEATURE: Are you asking the right questions about municipal wireless?

Are you asking the right questions about municipal wireless?Successful.com's Craig Settles advises municipalities to heed these 10 questions before moving forward with muni-WiFi plans.

There is quite the dust up in San Francisco over the request for proposal (RFP) for a WiFi network from all sides of the political spectrum. One significant concern is that the RFP doesn't seem complete or responsive to citizens' needs. Compared with the amount of pre-RFP work done by Philadelphia, I see a few vital things missing in the San Francisco initiative so far that reflect a haste to lead the country in the race to have citywide WiFi.

If a group of concerned citizens in any city considering muni-WiFi ponders the following questions in the context of the process that Philly followed, many cities would get a better start to their initiatives. You don't need to imitate everything Wireless Philadelphia did, but do pay careful attention to the procedures they followed.

1. Is there a steering committee for this initiative that is reflective of the city?
Philadelphia had an executive steering committee of 15 people representing business, non-profit and community constituencies, as well as two members of the city government. S.F. has a review panel that consists of three city folks, two Public Utility Commission execs, one community rep and the consultant firm Philadelphia retained. It's hard for a city to build a network that addresses community needs if most of the people making the decisions aren't from the communities.

2. Does your steering committee have a deeply thought out, clearly articulated vision of this initiative?
Philadelphia's committee, working as a group during one session, completed an eight-page vision-development workbook. These 17 people with varying interests had to define the network, what services it should deliver and weigh 30 distinct values to determine: "What values drive the development of this community technology program?" What values are driving your steering committee?     

3. Is there an aggressive needs-analysis process that reflects your city's population?
The city of Philly conducted 20 extensive focus groups within a two-month period. Each group represented a specific industry, neighborhood or ethnic group and consisted of leaders from their respective constituencies. The cross section of the city mosaic had a voice in the business model, defining services and identifying gateways or obstacles to success.  Even the incumbents were invited to a focus group (which they declined). When you do this much research, you quickly uncover wrong assumptions and unforeseen opportunities. 

4. Is there a business plan?
While managing the focus groups, the committee also created a 72-page business plan for Wireless Philadelphia. Completed in just 90 days, the plan included ROI projections, business-model and best practices analysis, infrastructure requirements, stakeholder analysis and a plan for marketing the network to generate citywide usage. The plan was done before the RFP was issued. Does your city have a business plan?

5. Has there been a technology feasibility study?
For nearly a year before the RFP was issued in Philly, there were several "proof of concept" deployments, every type of technical test and five pilot projects that each combined a different set of vendors' products. Not doing a feasibility study seems extremely reckless considering the newness of muni-WiFi technology, the unique nature of each city and the amount of money involved.

6. Are there feet in the street reaching out to constituent groups to develop community content, tools and activities that maximize the network?
Various community relations activities generated support and ideas from Philadelphia neighborhood associations, service organizations and business groups. Launch parties for the pilot projects drew support and even more ideas from local residents. Any WiFi network is just useless, expensive metal and plastic without the content, applications and community projects that deliver value to the people who you want to use the network.

7. Is the RFP specific enough and demanding enough to ensure that citizens' best interests are served?
After reviewing each city's RFP, I feel Philly's document asks vendors to provide a lot more detail than the S.F. RFP does to ensure certain objectives are met. They leave room for vendor creativity and flexibility, but be clear on this. Just because a vendor promises you a network for free, it doesn't mean you want any old thing hanging up there. Everything costs somebody something at some point in time, so you better be specific about what you want. 

8. Are there requirements to make sure the network infrastructure doesn't become obsolete?
Philadelphia's RFP was quite specific that vendors state upfront just how and when they plan to do upgrades. S.F. appears to be more relaxed on this point, asking bidders to explain how they will determine when and how upgrades are to be done. Technology obsolescence is the albatross that can kill your network ROI, so is this really an area where you want to ease up on vendor requirements?

9. Is a proof of concept required?
In Philly, the winning vendor is required to build a 15-square mile proof-of-concept network that will operate for three months and be "sufficient to demonstrate the functionality and viability of the recommended solution."  Seems to be a prudent move since it's better to know sooner rather than later if you need to make critical adjustments.

10. Does someone have the political will to put a muni-WiFi project back on track if it goes astray?
Those driving the Philadelphia initiative were willing to slow down, change course and do what was necessary to get the job done right. Too many cities are riding hell bent to be "first" with their deployments. It's more important to be right, folks.

Municipal wireless will help you run a better government operation and dramatically improve the impact of social and economic development efforts. Don't screw this up before you even get started. The easy part is putting out a press release or even an RFP. But the challenge is fighting the good fight needed to deploy municipal wireless. Start by asking the right questions.

Craig Settles is the president of consulting firm Successful.com and author of the new book, Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.