Wireless Net from traffic lights?


GRU tested antennas like this to see if the system can help with the traffic synchronization project.

Special to The Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 10:24 p.m.

Gainesville's roads could provide access to the information superhighway.

A project connecting traffic signals to reduce congestion could create the infrastructure needed to provide wireless Internet access through the area.

Gainesville Regional Utilities will receive proposals next month from companies vying to build a wireless network as part of the traffic system.

The network could be used for other applications such as providing Internet access to the public.

The system would turn roads into the kind of Wi-Fi hot spots found in coffee shops and book stores.

The network could provide Internet access to homes and businesses on the roads and a seamless connection to a person riding in a bus along the routes.

"It's kind of like Wi-Fi on steroids," said Ted Kellermann, director of the GRU's GRUCom telecommunications service.

A project to synchronize traffic signals in Gainesville and Alachua County locations makes the system possible.

The $18.2 million project - funded by local, state and federal sources - will allow transportation planners to remotely control more than 250 traffic signals and monitor more than 80 traffic cameras.

The system is now slated to be connected by fiber-optic cables. But Kellermann said GRU is seeking bids to determine if wireless connections could be included for the same or less cost, creating infrastructure that would have other applications.

"It just makes too much sense not to do it," he said.

More than 400 cities and counties have or are planning municipal wireless networks, according to MuniWireless, a Web site that tracks wireless trends.

But cities such as Houston, Chicago and St. Louis have faced problems with the cost of trying to provide wireless Internet access to the public.

Linking Internet projects with traffic and public safety applications makes economic sense, said Stan Schatt, vice president and research director of the technology research firm ABI Research. Combing the services creates an economy of scale, he said.

"They need each other badly to make it work," he said.

A growing group of cities are attempting combined projects. Corpus Christi, Texas, combines Internet access with wireless reading of utility meters. Ocean City, N.J., uses its system to connect to machines that monitor bracelets given to visitors using its beaches.

Riverside, Calif., uses its network for a variety of applications including controlling traffic signals, allowing parking meters to be paid by credit card and controlling ballpark lights, said Steve Reneker, the city's information-technology chief.

AT&T provides high-speed Internet service on the network as part of packages providing service in hot spots such as McDonald's and Barnes & Noble. A slower version of the service is available free to the public.

Kellermann said service in Gainesville would depend on the company chosen for the project. For now, he emphasized, the project is intended only for traffic signal connections.

Gainesville's traffic system is now connected through dial-up modems using phone lines, said Phil Mann, city traffic operations manager. The system allows transportation planners to control only one signal at a time, he said.

The new system, whether it's connected wirelessly or through cables, will let planners control multiple signals at once to improve traffic flow. Cameras will allow planners to base decisions on real-time images of traffic, which could also be publicly available through the Internet.

Mann said the cameras will be aimed only at public roadways and won't record images.

"We're not going to be sitting in our office trying to figure out what someone is doing in the Target parking lot," he said.

He said his focus is improving traffic, but he wouldn't mind if a wireless system was implemented that had other applications.

"It would nice to be on the cutting edge of technology for a change," he said.

Proposals for a wireless system are due Feb. 15. Kellermann said he expects to receive more than a dozen plans from major technology companies such as Cisco Systems, Hewitt Packard and Motorola.

He expects two companies to be chosen to each do a mile-long test run. If the project is deemed to be viable, construction could begin in six months and the system built in another year.

Internet access would likely be provided through an outside company, not GRUCom. Kellermann said he doesn't expect the free or advertisement-supported Internet access available in some cities, instead envisioning a system in which a company would sell public Internet access as part of a package providing service in their homes.

He said the University of Florida or large apartment complexes could decide to expand the network to their sites. County officials could decide to connect the system with the Digital Downtown service providing wireless access in the city's center.

The system could also have public safety applications such as providing wireless access in police cruisers, Kellermann said. Public Internet access would use separate signals from traffic and public safety applications to ensure security.

Kellermann said a widespread system with a variety of applications is just an idea at this point, but creating the infrastructure for the traffic project would make it possible.

"This is going to start with the corridors, and then we'll roll out from there," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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