Project Management Institute

Universal Access

To Launch Public Wi-Fi Networks, Teams Must Stay In Sync With The Built Environment

In a matter of decades, billions of people have come to expect internet connectivity virtually everywhere. And even though there have been massive global investments in cellular and broadband network infrastructure, publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks are just getting started. According to market research firm Global Industry Analysts Inc., the global market for outdoor Wi-Fi is projected to reach US$37.7 billion by 2020.

The global market for outdoor Wi-Fi is projected to reach US$37.7 billion by 2020.

Source: Global Industry Analysts Inc.

Projects to launch networks are multiplying as more municipalities respond to the demands of residents—including a growing number of digital nomads and remote workers—and look to bridge persistent digital divides. Typically funded by local governments or through public-private partnerships involving telecoms and internet service providers, Wi-Fi projects involve nothing less than how communities will fare in the digital age.

But before benefits can be realized, project teams must navigate a thicket of challenges involving urban infrastructure, regulations and security demands. “Coordinating all these things takes a great deal of time and effort,” says Daniel Hays, a principal who focuses on technology and telecommunications for PwC's Strategy& in Washington, D.C., USA. “These projects do not happen quickly.”

Custom Connections

Teams at British Telecommunications (BT) have encountered plenty of challenges up close during the last few years. The organization now operates nine public Wi-Fi networks in cities across the U.K., including one that spans two separate areas of Glasgow, Scotland. BT has also partnered with the cities of Manchester and London to construct Wi-Fi networks supporting the development of “smart city” infrastructure.


A public Wi-Fi hot spot in the U.K.


These projects are about much more than setting up hardware and software. Working with local officials, “BT carries out a detailed analysis of the area to take into account factors that influence the type and position of Wi-Fi access points that will be deployed,” says Nick Murrell, senior project manager, BT, London, England. To produce initial network designs, teams must consider factors such as human traffic patterns, building and land ownership, and the condition of structures such as lampposts and street signs, he says.


“Coordinating [regulations, security and urban infrastructure] takes a great deal of time and effort. These projects do not happen quickly.”

—Daniel Hays, PwC, Washington, D.C., USA

Once a draft plan is completed, BT project teams move on to formal on-site surveys, “working closely with our partners and installation teams,” he says. Of particular focus during this stage is backhaul provisioning (which involves installing fiber or copper lines or wireless connections) and special site requirements such as easements or complex excavation work. “The biggest challenge for outdoor public Wi-Fi is to deliver the backhaul for the service … as this will usually involve excavation in city centers to connect to the core BT network,” Mr. Murrell says.


An ad for public Wi-Fi in Porto Maravilha, Brazil

The end result must be a network that delivers a level of performance and security suitable for today's devices—while also being flexible enough to handle inevitable technological advances.

In Sync

A Wi-Fi project was integral to a larger program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's Porto Maravilha district. Tapped by the city to be part of redevelopment efforts tied to the 2016 Summer Olympics, Cisco Brazil embarked on a Wi-Fi project designed to cover waterfront promenades spanning about 100,000 square meters (1.1 million square feet). In addition to providing free public Wi-Fi access, the platform also needed to support secure connections for government employees, says Mauricio Reis, PMP, program manager for Latin America innovation, Cisco Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Mr. Reis says that for public Wi-Fi projects, project managers need a deep understanding of not only the technology in play but also political and cultural contexts. That's why Cisco hired an outside consultant to interview citizens, tourists, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders for the Porto Maravilha project.

“This research helped us align the Wi-Fi network with needs and desires,” he says. For example, the team learned what type of content users would access and how much time they would typically spend online.

To bring the project to the finish line, the team had to quickly resolve technical issues that cropped up. At one point, after mapping out the network, the team couldn't place access points on light posts due to aesthetic concerns from city hall. So, they had to go back to the city government to gain permission to use other infrastructure. The project “involved many partnerships and the need to synchronize activities,” Mr. Reis says. —Samuel Greengard

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