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FAYETTEVILLE -- Digital technology will only grow faster and more expansive and the city wants to make sure its residents don't miss out.

The city soon will request proposals to overhaul its communications systems over multiple phases. The overhaul entails increasing network connectivity speeds across city facilities, finding a new vendor for its telephone system and expanding Wi-Fi availability at major parks and other public venues, Information Technologies Director Keith Macedo said.

WEB WATCH

Learn more about the entities that have helped guide the city’s digital policy:

Next Century Cities

nextcenturycities.org

Broadband Communities

bbpmag.com

NTIA Broadband USA

www2.ntia.doc.gov

United Nations ITU

itu.int/en/action/Pages/default.aspx

Pew Research

pewinternet.org/topics/digital-divide

For more on the city’s approach to the digital world, go to:

bit.ly/faydigital

Source: Staff report

Before taking on the overhaul, the city wants to wrap up the third and final phase of an upgrade to its software system. The same software has been used for more than 20 years for its core financial, human resources, payroll and utility billing.

Phase I to upgrade the financial system was completed in June. A payroll and human resources system, which enabled employees to view paychecks and W2 forms online was finished in September. A new utility billing system will begin in late spring, Macedo said.

Right now, the public can connect to city-sanctioned Wi-Fi at City Hall, the Police Department, Development Services, Facilities Management, Parks and Recreation Department, the animal shelter and airport. The only publicly available city wireless connection outside those buildings emerged in 2011 at the Fayetteville Square. The Town Center also has its own public Wi-Fi.

A public-private partnership between Cox Communications and the city made Wi-Fi at the square happen.

"We would like to expand upon that concept," Macedo said.

Closing the gap

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said revising digital capabilities began as a desire to close the so-called "homework gap," which refers to the children of low-income families who cannot access broadband because they can't afford it versus those who can.

That's where his heart is, Jordan said. Everything else, from more Wi-Fi hotspots, increasing network speeds in the city or becoming a "smart city" with utilities tied to an advanced network, is a happy afterthought, he said.

A report from the Pew Research Center in 2015 showed 31 percent of households across the nation with an annual income under $50,000 don't have access to broadband. The median household income in Fayetteville, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was just more than $39,000 in 2015.

Jordan intends to partner with major Internet providers, such as Cox, AT&T and Ozarks Electric, to make their programs for affordable Internet more accessible to the residents who need them.

Cox offers discounted Internet service to households with students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch or public housing. AT&T offers a similar service with its Access from AT&T program.

Following the lead

The city has become involved with several groups and organizations regularly providing direction and best practices for Internet access and affordability, said Susan Norton, the city's communication director.

Bringing in more companies will level the playing field and increase competition, something that will create an atmosphere of affordable internet for everyone in the city, Norton said.

The city wants to mirror Kansas City, Mo., in how it makes Internet resources available. Kansas City provides an online list of every Internet service, both wired and wireless, with prices, speed, availability and customer rating. It also has a map of every publicly funded Internet access spot in the city.

Fayetteville's plan to use ideas from other cities goes beyond setting up a web page. Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, has become a "1Gig" city, making available super high-speed Internet to every home and business.

Becoming a "1Gig" city isn't in the immediate future, but upgrading the city's internal networks, facilities and utilities connections all count as steps toward that goal, Norton said.

"At some point, I don't know when, it would be a good thing to discuss," she said.

Ozarks Electric has launched its OzarksGo fiber Internet service. Fiber connections can offer a speed up to 1 gigabit per second. The fiber-optics cables more easily transfer data, compared to a standard copper wire connection for broadband, which typically offer speeds up to 300 megabits per second.

No one size fits all

Overhauling a city's digital system isn't cheap, but neither is any street project, said Deb Socia with Next Century Cities. The trick is to enact policies now to make becoming a smart city less expensive later, she said.

For example, a city with a "dig once" policy will put in conduit, or a tube that holds wiring, every time a street gets torn up. That makes rigging a network far easier.

Partnerships always present opportunities to lessen costs and develop relationships with shared risks and shared rewards between cities and companies, Socia said. Sometimes, cities themselves or utility companies, such as Ozarks Electric, can develop their own internet services.

"There's been a variety of ways, but none of them is going to happen for nothing," Socia said. "But, we wouldn't expect our road to get built for nothing, or our sewer system, or an upgrade to the electric system."

Other cities in Northwest Arkansas have taken different stances with their digital initiatives. Springdale offers free public Wi-Fi at its five major parks and Shiloh Square, in addition to city buildings. Rogers offers Wi-Fi at its city buildings.

Bentonville, which first offered Wi-Fi in its downtown in 2008, no longer offers the service. The advent of mobile wireless data services such as 4G and LTE decreased the demand, Mayor Bob McCaslin said.

The idea of making Wi-Fi available citywide often is ill-fated, according to Steve Ross, corporate editor for Broadband Communities magazine.

Wi-Fi can work great for a downtown area, but it shouldn't serve as a replacement for a business' Internet service. Putting a credit card transaction through a public network can be disastrous, for example. Ensuring those businesses have access to fast, affordable internet of their own avoids those potential dangers, Ross said.

Every area has its own needs and character, Ross said. Fayetteville, for example, has a lot of trees and hilly terrain, which can make installing public Wi-Fi through a broadband connection a challenge.

There is no "one size fits all" approach to digital infrastructure, Ross said.

"I admire any forward-thinking public official who wants to do this kind of thing, but the devil is in the details," he said.

Making strides

The city already has a number of initiatives under way. Utilities workers can read water meters by driving through neighborhoods and getting the information relayed to a device in their trucks.

A smart-meter pilot project also is in the works so city crews can read meters remotely, Macedo said.

The Police and Fire departments have probably undergone the biggest overhaul replacing records management system. The departments have used the same program since 1997 with a solid-black-with-green-type interface.

By late February or early March, an easy-to-use Windows system should be up and running, said Capt. Jamie Fields with the Fayetteville Police Department.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "We're very excited to have it."

The city also wants to form a task force with the director of the Fayetteville Public Library and superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools, currently David Johnson and Matthew Wendt, respectively. The task force will focus on "digital inclusion," the effort to make sure families of all income brackets have access to internet service.

Jordan admits he doesn't know everything there is to know about broadband. What he does know, he said, is any city that wants to be progressive and competitive has made strides in digital technology.

"I'm always trying to learn more about tomorrow than what I know today," Jordan said.

NW News on 01/29/2017

Print Headline: City expanding digital capabilities

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