07 Jul Municipal broadband in Illinois: Where are the standards?
At last week’s municipal wireless conference put on by SkyPilot Networks at Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill., Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn made some good statements to rally municipal attendees. He said we need to focus on high-speed Internet if we are going to make a difference.
Quinn had some encouraging remarks about keeping the playing field open for competition and not allowing political or economic blockading. He has made this a priority in his job and has stated that this is an issue that affects everyone in the state.
He mentioned how the state is putting aside some money for grants in the Mainstreet program. While this is a start, in reality implementing a cohesive and contiguous layer of network infrastructure on a statewide basis is a multibillion-dollar endeavor. Add to that recurring maintenance fees in the millions. It’s not a one-shot, $1 million expenditure.
Though it’s good that we have an elected official who is attempting to understand the need for broadband initiatives at a state level, he along with other state and local officials need to have a much better understanding of the complex magnitude of what they are proposing.
Though Quinn feels we have made significant progress, the sobering question is: “Compared to what?” We are still behind many states. At best, we are playing catch up to states ranging from California to Kentucky. When put into that framework for comparison, it’s no wonder we are still losing companies and jobs to other states. We had better put a concentrated effort into correcting our state’s neglect of understanding where the world is headed.
Many organizations that have acquired companies or have merged with others find out very quickly that their systems and network architecture do not mix with the others. They go through many millions of dollars trying to merge these disparate networks and sometimes find out they have to start all over again in order to make them compatible.
Illinois is headed in that direction. I’m sure other states will have similar future problems if their politicians don’t grasp the total implications of broadband connectivity. About two years ago, it wasn’t on this state’s radar. Now we have some projects in the early stages popping up across the state and many people spewing out buzzwords.
If you get it, get all of it
Well-intentioned politicians and municipal administrators are not enough to build cohesive and reliable networks. You need to get well beyond the buzzwords and the key phrases. We need concise standards for reliability and redundancy applied across the state. This wasn’t really addressed at this recent meeting.
An administrator from Prospect Heights, Ill. did ask Quinn about the state setting some standards, but the answer was: “We’d like to see many experiments go forward.” That can’t be the answer to which we adhere. If we do, this state is doomed to have a patchwork of networks at various levels of capability and capacities that may or may not be standardized for reliability and redundancy.
When that happens, the infrastructure becomes only as strong as the weakest link. Network engineering is a more complicated endeavor than some overnight experts think. The joke is that creating a Wi-Fi network for a couple coffee shops or a library does not give you the insights to building a reliable, mission-critical network for a municipality.
Remember the Hinsdale Central Office fire about two decades ago? If the network infrastructure was designed right and the traffic patterns were actually monitored and managed, that one fire should not have taken out eight other offices and crippled a whole region. This shows that even the people who supposedly are experts can make big mistakes in design.
By the way, that was done long before people were dependent on so many communications-based applications (including the Internet). Imagine something the magnitude of Hinsdale happening today.
Network infrastructures are like railroads
I know many people bristle when something like this is said, but you don’t have the insight to become an infrastructure designer for the Burlington Northern by virtue of the fact you have built a nice Lionel train track in your basement.
We don’t need “experiments” across the state with no attention being paid as to whether all tracks are of the same gauge. Just as you can’t connect railroads of different gauges, networks need very strict standards that are adhered to by everyone.
The fabric of the network infrastructure is a complex design that has grown more complex in the last two decades. Even the people who supposedly know what they are doing sometimes fall very short in performing their duties. Again, just remember Hinsdale.
If every municipality was given approval to build part of a railroad infrastructure to strengthen its local economy, don’t you think standards and track gauges would be crucial in the planning stage? We need that same type of rigid construct in place before we let municipalities build something.
This is true for any state (not just Illinois). These are not new design ideas. They have been around for decades as other industries built out complex and mission-critical networks for their own applications. The design concepts that should be avoided are:
• One size fits all.
• Discounting reliability. You don’t need to spend money for that.
• Discounting redundancy needs. Don’t worry about backups. Those are too expensive.
• Worshipping the god of cheapest cost.
This is what should be addressed in every network endeavor:
• Reliability standards. This should be a state, if not an industry standard.
• Redundancy. How redundant do you want to be in order to be 99.99 percent up? What about 99.995 percent or 99.999 percent? What are the costs?
• Flexibility in adapting to future expenditures and feature attributes.
• Familiarity in support skills when managing and maintaining the network.
• Present and future performance.
• Pricing. It should be financially sound not only in the implementation but also with maintenance.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.