FEATURE: Muni-WiFi vendors play critical role in driving applications

If you're a mobile or wireless application vendor wanting to increase your revenues, consider municipal wireless networks. There's going to be a spike in businesses purchasing these applications IF smart vendors capitalize on the opportunity these networks open up.

I conducted a national survey of business owners and managers, plus in-depth interviews with executives of chambers of commerce in six cities planning to deploy muni networks for my July Municipal Wireless Snapshot report. In summary, among 176 respondents, willingness to try advertising on these networks is low, at 7 percent. But a sizable number of them are interested in mobile workforce and asset management apps.

This latter finding is great news for vendors that know how to seize upon a
marketing opportunity. Currently two major impediments to organizations, particularly small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), using wireless applications are price and speed. The average SME that operates mainly in its local area has a rough time justifying $60 a month per worker to be limited to upload speeds of 112 kbps (that 724 kbps you see advertised is download speed only). There are serious limits to the type of apps and data you can access at 112 kbps.

Now, consider the value to those same businesses if you give them a city- or county-wide network with wireless access speeds of 1 mbps or more both ways and at a price between $20 and $30 per worker. Then you start to see interest in the services my survey reveals.

Fifty percent showed a moderate to high level of interest in wireless access to collaboration tools and in wireless applications to process forms and other paperwork. Another 53 percent expressed similar levels of interest in wireless access to applications and data on company intranets. And 63 percent are interested in wireless email access.

With the promised speeds of muni networks, you begin to see serious interest (56 percent and 49 percent respectively) in voice over IP and video applications over the Internet such as video conferencing and video surveillance.

Asset management applications are now within the range of average businesses, with 47 percent interested in wireless monitoring of assets' operations for efficiency and preventative maintenance. Forty percent said they are interested in wirelessly tracking vehicles and other assets, while 48 percent have an interest in using these networks for video surveillance of property and work areas.

Application vendors can sit on their hands and watch how muni-wireless initiatives play out in the various cities, or you forward thinkers will get in front of this unstoppable trend. One major impact you can have is through educating business market and local governments.

After watching this muni-wireless space for the past year, I feel some cities don't dig down deep enough with extensive needs analysis of business communities. Therefore, both those driving the initiatives and businesses fail to learn the specifics on how companies can benefit from the networks. The technology due diligence and resulting RFP subsequently may not reflect those needs and potential uses.

Without adequate capabilities built into the network, such as sufficient speed, security and reliability, businesses won't use it and therefore your opportunity to create new customers goes out the window. You need to work the various communication channels to make governments aware of what questions they should be asking, and businesses aware of the range of mobile applications muni networks make affordable and practical.

Luckily, economic development arms of local governments are starting to realize these networks can help businesses save money, make money and run a better operation. In New York City, for example, their economic development group is driving the RFP process to have a consultant come in and conduct a feasibility study. Vendors can help stoke the fires of this budding awareness.

Another way mobile technology vendors can play a role in these initiatives is through sponsorships, a tactic Nokia is validating in New York. While I doubt the ability of ads to be the main pillar to sustain a muni network, at least in the first couple of years of their operations, I'm bullish on sponsorships.

WiFi Salon (www.wifisalon.com) will own and manage a WiFi network infrastructure in many of the parks within Manhattan and the other boroughs through a contract it has with the city. The hotspots will act as local portals that feature content specific to that location and enable users to share content with each other.

Nokia is helping sponsor the network, using it to promote the company's wireless devices and informing people about its services at retail outlets such as one it's opening soon in New York. Nokia sees this as a great opportunity to showcase rich multimedia services as well. Users who log on to the network will see a splash page demonstrating Nokia's devices. They also can download streaming audio and video files at high speeds.

Muni wireless is going to change the mobile computing landscape. In this movement are you going to be a leader, a follower or get out of the way?

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