Getting ready to grow

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/05/2007 - 09:50

With traffic choking the major metropolitan areas of the country, I think that some smaller cities like Roanoke, Virginia and Scranton, Pennsylvania are poised for growth, if they can adequately address a range of quality of life issues. These smaller cities may have a rush hour, but it usually measured in minutes, not hours, and because they are located outside major urban corridors, it is possible to have a nice house in the woods a few miles from town and still drive to work in fifteen or twenty minutes.

But no one is going to move to those places only because of a shorter commute. There has to be enough activity to attract both entrepreneurs and young people. Entrepreneurs want to talk to savvy and well-informed economic developers, they want inexpensive, downtown office space for their start ups, they want good places to eat, and they want great coffee shops. Young twenty-something workers want good shopping, lots of social activities, and some night life.

Northeastern Pennsylvania, home to Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and dozens of smaller communities, is poised for growth. The Wall Street West initiative will bring massive bandwidth into the region to attract larger financial firms, and Scranton's investments in sports arenas and recreational activities (how about skiing ten minutes from downtown?) will help attract and retain workers.

Roanoke, Virginia, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, has convenient access to some of the best hiking, biking, and whitewater sports on the east coast, with a dizzying array of recreational options. The City's leadership has embarked on a wide variety of initiatives to attract younger workers, including a newly revamped Web site. This week, the City is also announcing a new initiative called, which is designed to help retailers easily learn about the Roanoke area market.

Lively and attractive small cities are also important to nearby rural towns. Not everyone wants to live "in town," and a vibrant small city an hour or two from a rural community enhances the value of that small town as well. Regional collaboration on marketing, recreational activities, and economic development can pay big benefits.

Perhaps there is a free lunch

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/26/2006 - 09:23

A three year old Philadelphia project to turn waste into gas, oil, and minerals has been so successful that the EPA and private investors are putting money behind expansion of the effort. One of the new sites will be in Missouri, near a turkey processing plant. The energy recycling plant will turn 200 tons of turkey guts into 10 tons of gas and 600 barrels of oil. The gas is used to power the plant, which is 85% efficient.

This looks like a free lunch because you get three for one; you reduce the amount of waste going into landfills, you get local production of energy products, and you reduce reliance on foreign oil.

The system uses exactly the same processes the earth uses to turn organic matter into oil, but while that takes millions of years for the earth to do it, using heat and pressure in the right amounts lets the energy plant accomplish the same thing in a few hours. The system is owned by Changing World Technologies, and while this has been tried before, the company developed a new approach that makes it much more efficient in terms of the amount of energy required for the conversion process.

This is just one more examply why the notion of running out oil--as a crisis--is looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope--it is an opportunity. How about your region? Do you have companies with significant waste streams of organic matter? Why not compete directly with the Middle East and become an oil and gas producer? It will reduce the strain on your landfill, create jobs, generate taxes, and diversify your local economy.

Philadelphia and broadband aggregation

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/01/2005 - 14:43

Philadelphia's plan to deploy WiFi throughout the city has never made sense to me. I am never in favor of massive system deployments in advance of understanding the marketplace and making sure that you are offering something users want and will use. If a community is going to do WiFi, better to start with some modest hotspot deployments, watch usage, and adjust your plans accordingly. If the system is jammed with users--great! That is success. Now you have real justification for expanding your telecom investment.

But back to Philadelphia. This Wall Street Journal article reveals that there is method to the City's madness. What Philadelphia plans to do is to aggregate all their individual Internet connections and buy one large, "fat pipe" that will serve the entire set of city agencies, at a much reduced cost. And the wireless network will help distribute all that bandwidth to the appropriate city facilities.

New York Times comes out against communities

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 02/20/2005 - 10:13

The New York Times (registration required) has a very biased article about Philadelphia's plan for citywide wireless broadband. The paper interviewed mainly opponents of the plan, and seemed to go to great lengths to interview those opponents, while trivializing successful community projects. Worth a read just to understand the anti-community sentiment out there.

It's unfortunate that the MSM (MainStream Media) is unwilling to make the effort to report both sides of the issue. I'm not arguing that the Times should be in favor of community technology projects, but rather that their reporting should strive to present both sides of the issue fairly.

Hands off WiFi

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/11/2005 - 15:39

Dianah Neff, the CIO of the City of Philadelphia, has written an interesting article on municipalities and WiFi for CNet.

Philadelphia had ambitious plans to provide WiFi citywide until Verizon jumped into the discussion and got the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a law requiring municipalities to ask Verizon's permission before going into the service business (Philadelphia was exempted, but the whole debacle put the brakes on Philadelphia's effort).

Neff puts her finger on what I think is an essential truth in this whole dust up:

For all the money they've spent lobbying against municipal participation, they could have built the network themselves. The truth, of course, is that the incumbent local exchange carriers want unregulated monopolies over all telecommunications.

Bingo! The article is worth a careful read.

RTC Conference: Building Last (First) Mile Infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 19:23

The second speaker is James Baker, from central Pennsylvania, with the Council of Governments--an 11 county area with 300 local government entities of one kind or another. Most communities are under 2500 population, and many are under 1000. Generally a very low density area--20-40 households per square mile as an average.

Broadband services are expanding in the area. However, 98% of Pennsylvania urban areas have some form of broadband, but only 25% of rural areas have some kind of service. Providers view rural areas as not good markets.

The state of Pennsylvania has funded a GIS system that provides service maps for various kinds of services available (i.e. DSL, cable modem, etc). Good tool, but data quality varies, some limitations in granularity of data.

Wireless services were considered for expansion in one county by swapping tower space on an EMS tower with space on a commercially-owned tower in another part of the county. EMS would get better radio coverage, and residents and businesses would get more access and choice in broadband.

Murphy's Law kicked in...the six inch square antenna which was to be put on the county tower would require a $5000 engineering study to make sure it would not add significant wind loading to the 200' tower. No one would pay for the study, so the project got slowed down while a variety of funding sources were pursued. The ARC came to the rescue, but the $5000 grant application required almost the same amount of paperwork as a $150,000 grant.

After the engineering studies were done, it was discovered that the county did have legal control of the tower, and that has required additional effort. Testing by the service provider has shown that nearly the entire anticipated service area will be covered.

In the meantime, the government fiber project is using wireless to expand coverage beyond the ends of the fiber. Some nonprofits are getting service.

Issues include legal problems--one person, the county lawyer, has the power to stop these projects dead in their tracks. If the cable company expands service, the wireless provider may feel it is not worth it to continue expansion--it becomes very important for government to be able to move quickly to help private businesses.

Philly plans world's largest mesh WiFi network

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 09/23/2004 - 14:37

Back in the early winter of this year, I wrote about the potential of a new generation of WiFi mesh network software and hardware to make it much easier to design and provision community wireless networks.

Philadelphia, which has been in the news recently for their announcement that they were looking at WiFi, has now released more details about their plans, which will include using mesh WiFi equipment to create a wireless blanket over most of the city (135 square miles). Only between 8 and 16 antennas will be needed per square mile.

Mesh networks are less expensive and are designed to be easy to deploy. Mesh networks also are fault tolerant. In a properly designed mesh, you can lost some antennas and equipment and most users will still be able to stay connected to the network.

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