Mesh Network Is Key To Corpus Christi's Mobile Worker Program

By  By Susan Nunziata — March 04, 2009

When Earthlink exited the muni WiFi market in 2008 cities such as Corpus Christi, TX, were suddenly faced with the task of managing their own networks. For some, the development presented a mix of challenge and opportunity.

John Sendejar, Business Unit Manager, External Relations, of the Corpus Christi Digital Community Development Corp. (CCDCDC) a unit of the City of Corpus Christi, TX, says his immediate need was to quickly get his arms around the city's Tropos wireless mesh network, which had been installed and previously managed by Earthlink.

The network was unceremoniously dropped in the city's lap in May 2008. "Outside of getting an Excel spreadsheet with about 1,300 Access Points listed on it, I actually didn't know what I had in the field," says Sendejar. "It was really difficult to fathom what was up, what was down, what was not working, what was configured badly, what was communicating to us. We just had no way to be able to do that. Not a tool in place to be able to very quickly assess your wireless network and the functionality and performance of it."

Sendejar is the only full-time paid staff member of CCDCDC. He works with a team of 10 network technicians who share responsibility for both the city's wired and wireless networks. It took them four weeks to physically audit the network's APs, which were scattered across 147 square miles.

The manual audit turned up valuable information that Sendejar previously didn't have access to -- such as how the APs were configured, what SSID was being displayed, whether it was an administrative SSID or configured for the maintenance and support that the public would be seeing.

But, it wasn't until the city deployed the AirWave WLAN management solution from Aruba Networks that Sendejar was able to get a keen grasp of what he was dealing with. "[AirWave's] representative helped us install, and it was done by 10 in the morning. By the end of that day I had identified three fourths of my assets in the field. What information they were displaying, what SSIDs were configured, whether they were on a certain firmware or not, what longitudinal and latitudinal information they were displaying. I then could look at them in the field and, because of [AirWave's] association with Google Earth, I could display that device over a GIS map.

"I can't tell you how much information I had in one day at my fingertips. It took us four weeks [to do the manual audit] and I still couldn't grasp it because I couldn't physically see how it all came together on a visual display."

Expanding Mobility Throughout The City
The network was originally created in order to enable the city to move toward automated meter readings for its utility services. But it quickly became apparent that the network opened up a host of other opportunities for mobilizing government workers.

The city is in the process of implementing a new Government Service Worker program that seeks to create a more mobile, efficient workforce.

The city's restaurant inspectors already use HP Compaq PDAs to electronically collect data from all the facilities they visit. "When they get to a wireless connection, they upload that data back to a central data point for collection of those restaurant inspections," says Sendejar.

Utility workers are just beginning to experiment with applications that can enable them to accept and manage their work orders in the field using WiFi-enabled laptops.

"Imagine a water crew getting their [six] work orders all printed out in the morning," says Sendejar. "Then going out in the field and finishing them. Then having to come back to the office to close out those work orders on a PC. There's a lot of time wasted. What we envisioned was that our government workers would be able to access their applications in the field via this wireless network, close out the work orders, and continue onto the next work order."

In January, two fire inspectors and three animal control workers were equipped with the mobile solution. The goal? Sendejar plans to have about 300 city workers online by the end of 2009, and expects to double that number by the end of 2010.

As part of the program, Sendejar is also creating secure hotspots at 34 city-owned facilities such as public safety buildings and senior centers where any government worker can go and be assured of a high-speed connection. "These are places that we own that we're monitoring regularly for optimum network performance."

Wireless At Saturday Softball Games
Of course, the network isn't just for city workers -- it's available to all residents of Corpus Christi as well. In fact, Sendejar is rolling out a public hotspot at the city's 118-acre sports complex, equipped with soccer, baseball and football fields, to enable working parents to take advantage of the network while they're at their kids' games.

"I don't want to take the parents away from watching Little Johnny make his first home run," says Sendejar. "But the fact of the matter is, people are carrying around technology everywhere nowadays. The best thing we can do from a community standpoint is embrace that and try to provide those opportunities for our community."

Keeping the network operating optimally is key to keeping the government workers rolling and keeping the residents satisfied with the service. Sendejar says the AirWave solution helps him do just that.

"Every  morning, I open up AirWave and I get an immediate dashboard view of anything that may be problematic by alerts we have set up. Any devices that are down. Any devices that have not communicated in the last 12 or 24 hours."

The solution allows him to see the number of users currently utilizing the network, and the level of bandwidth that they're utilizing both from an upload and a download status to see the impact these users are having on my network.

"If there are any mis-matched [AP] configurations, I get immediate notification that this device is not lined up to the default configurations that I have set for it. AirWave is telling me to go back and take a look at that device."

The ability to proactively manage the network and head off problems before they occur is probably the biggest advantage, says Sendejar.

"Instead of reacting to a customer calling and saying I can't get a connection at one of your hotspots, I  now am proactive in looking at this and trying to fix the problem before that customer calls in and says he has a problem," says Sendejar. "Because AirWave gives me that visual of my devices that I can start to proactively manage my network with the resources I have in place from a desktop, instead of sending people out into the field trying to look for problems."

AirWave interacts with the Tropos software that is managing and configuring the mesh network.

"If I have a device that's not communicating at all, I can immediately set up a work order, a troubleshoot work order and send that off to one of my technicians so he can take a look at it," says Sendejar.

"Ultimately, our goal is to provide a transparent connection to our users, whether the public or government workers in the field. They don't care why they're not getting a connection, or what's wrong with the network. We want that process to be as transparent as possible. What AirWave has been able to let us do is to be able to manage and ensure that the network is operating at some level of performance that we're comfortable with. That, in return, has helped us manage the utilization of the network both by the public and our government workers."
 
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UPDATE: March 28, 2010: Corpus Christi is also vying for an opportunity to compete with other cities for the Google Fiber network. Corpus Christi is leveraging over 90 miles of City owned fiber and their current pole attachment agreement with over 1700 assets in place. "A network of this magnitude can only enhance our ability to be more mobile, and be more efficient as a government entity," says Sendejar.
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