Service launched in 2006 is ‘revenue neutral’

Lompoc Police Officer Frank Lopez pivots the camera mounted in his patrol car Wednesday to show the in-car surveillance that is uploaded to a server in the Lompoc Police Department using the city’s wireless Internet.

Throughout the entire day, every day, what happens out in pockets of the city are transmitted from hidden police surveillance cameras to the Lompoc Police Department using the city’s Wi-Fi service.

 Video cameras installed in police vehicles transmit a feed across the Wi-Fi service, LompocNet. Electric and water meters also send one-way feeds to the city, according to Wireless Services Administrator Richard Gracyk.

When Lompoc spent about $4 million to install and run LompocNet, the intention had been to create a wireless service that would connect any laptop in Lompoc to the Internet a plan that was more of an ambitious dream than reality. But since the 2006 launch of the service, plagued with setbacks before going online, the Wi-FI has taken on a valuable role for utility departments and is generating revenue from the city itself, no less.

In 2010-2011, LompocNet cost $397,000 to operate, Chief Financial Administrator Brad Wilke said, but it also earned $392,000 from departments paying for the wireless use and other sources.   

“It’s providing a service to other portions of the city and should be paid for just as individuals pay for the electricity they are getting,” Wilke said.

By having the city agencies pay for the Wi-Fi use, the city is closing in on making LompocNet a stand-alone enterprise, Wilke said.

That comes from an experiment that was deemed a flop a few years ago when it was supposed to depend on a customer-service model to generate funds. Gracyk, working with a small team of wireless service technicians, said the system currently has 1,200 to 1,600 regular subscribers, hardly enough people to sustain an annual budget of nearly $400,000.

The system extends 6.4 square miles across the city, Gracyk said. The system is made up of nodes, or a protruding knob, placed atop street lamps throughout the city, which is how residents connect to the service. The transmission goes to additional nodes, which transmit into a master node, which is the gateway to an antenna on the south side of town that delivers the information through a fiber optic cable.

The service that has gone largely ignored by residents is being put to valuable use on the surveillance cameras out in the streets, sending a transmission from vehicles to the departments.

“We are not paying a fee for a wireless card because of the Wi-Fi,” said Police Capt. Larry Ralston. “We piggyback on what the city has in place.”

That wasn’t originally intended.

“A big part of that was the original scenario was to sell subscriptions of Internet service and that was all that was envisioned when the program and project was developed,” Gracyk said. “As time has gone on we have been able leverage the network do a lot more things.” 

The water and wastewater industries are expected to pay for electricity, Wilke said, and the same standard should apply for agencies paying to use LompocNet. 

Gracyk said if he were asked by another city if they should create their own Wi-Fi system, he would tell them there is a lot to consider but he supports the system.

Lompoc does not have to negotiate prices or deal with contractual hassles for their Wi-Fi use. The city also doesn’t need to run changes through any company.  

Still, use is largely confined to city agencies. Commercial businesses haven’t embraced use. 

“It’s a very small portion,” Gracyk said.

It’s also not a perfect fit for all residents. He said the Internet service would work fine for general web browsing, but individuals interested in intensive online gaming or viewing videos through companies like Netflix might be better suited with another service.

In the long-term though, Gracyk said, the city’s Wi-Fi system is oriented with where technology is moving so its a valuable resource.

The system hasn’t earned money yet, but it could in the future.

“If the network had been abandoned four years ago there would still have been the cost of construction expended with no potential for payback,” Gracyk said. “By continuing to operate and create uses at least we can have a financial model that looks at payment of construction.”