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Why Tucson is building its own 4G network

The city of Tucson, Arizona, is weeks away from finishing the first phase of its 4G LTE network buildout. The city will initially use the network to connect around 1,000 kids in poor households to the Internet but eventually hopes to use the network for a variety of services ranging from smart city IoT operations to a city-operated regional cell phone offering.

Tucson embarked on the effort after attempting to connect homebound students to mobile networks during the early days of the pandemic, according to a report in Government Technology. Spotty coverage and other complications pushed city managers to consider building their own network.

In a presentation for the OnGo Alliance Tuesday, Tucson CIO Collin Boyce said the city used its existing municipal fiber network and around $5 million in COVID-19 stimulus funding to begin building its own wireless network in the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band to cross its digital divide. The city worked with several vendors including fiber provider Zayo, network planning company Insight Enterprises, device vendor Sierra Wireless and radio equipment supplier JMA Wireless to construct the network. Vendor Geoverse provides core network services that allow users to roam onto public wireless networks when they're out of reach of the city's network.

The network spans around 40 cell towers covering around 44 square miles – or around 32,000 Tucson households – providing average speeds of between 30Mbit/s and 50Mbit/s.

Not surprisingly, local telecom operators aren't particularly supportive of the initiative.

"There're a lot of people who think that the government does not have this responsibility," Tucson's CIO Boyce said, explaining that the city's existing telecom providers Lumen Technologies and Cox have "spent a significant amount of time pushing back on this project."

And that opposition will probably grow in the months and years to come, given that the third phase of Tucson's plan, spanning the next four years, involves the construction of a "Tucson regional cell phone service."

"We are foreseeing that there's going to be some challenges in the future," Boyce said.

Boyce noted though that more than 300 other cities around the country also operate their own telecom services. That of course has raised the ire of opponents of municipal broadband networks; indeed, House Republicans recently introduced legislation that would ban such networks.

Boyce explained that he grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, and emigrated to the US with his siblings and mother in the 1970s. He explained that his family benefited from government assistance as they settled in the US, and that he's working to provide the poorer citizens of Tucson with the same type of assistance he received when he was young.

"We wanted to provide Internet connectivity to people who are poor, and I see it as no different than the help that I had," he said. "It will allow us to invest in the leadership of tomorrow."

Boyce said that completing the first phase of Tucson's network wasn't easy. He said that the LTE network's signal propagation "wasn't terrible" but also wasn't as good as he had hoped. But he said that was the only technological hiccup the city encountered.

More difficult, according to Boyce, was overcoming obstacles in the installation of networking equipment.

"People are scared of wireless," he said, explaining that some citizens think nearby cell towers will "fry their brains." He also said the city struggled to build around American Indian burial grounds.

The city also had to implement filtering technologies in order to prevent users from using the network to access pornography and other spicy content, similar to how libraries handle their public Internet services. As a result, Boyce said the city had to staff a call center to answer questions from users wondering why they couldn't access banned services and websites.

Partly due to such issues, Boyce said the city had hoped to launch full phase one services in December, but now expects to do so in March.

Nonetheless, Boyce said the city is now looking for ways to fund phase two of the network, which would support Internet connections in public locations and on city buses. He said the effort could also connect traffic signals and other city appliances to the Internet for smart city applications. That phase is expected to stretch over the next two years.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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