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March 3, 2010 > Telecommunications commission keeps Milpitas connected

Telecommunications commission keeps Milpitas connected

By Steve Wyant

In 1994, the City of Milpitas formed the Telecommunications Commission, a unique advisory commission to help deal with emerging technology issues. It was initially chartered to help city leadership and staff manage internal infrastructure such as network, computer hardware, email and phone systems. Technology has advanced since then and the commission's focus has also grown, currently overseeing infrastructure and developing plans that directly affect virtually every Milpitas resident.

Information Services Director Bill Marion believes Milpitas was the first city to create such a commission and is still one of only a handful of cities in Northern California to have one.

Appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council, there are nine regular members and two alternates. The commission meets at City Hall Council Chambers at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of each month.

While there are no specific technology experience requirements, the intent is to develop a commission whose members represent a broad range of expertise in hardware, software, telecommunications, fabrication and other technology fields.

"The fact that we've got a commission of volunteers so involved in what's going on within the IT functions of the city is pretty unique," stated Marion. "We benefit having people who work for companies like Cisco, AT&T... really all the big name companies. They live here and are a great resource for us."

In recent years, the commission's involvement has extended to a broader array of issues affecting the public. At their monthly meetings, commissioners routinely review applications for communications antennae installations. They were involved in the latest cable television franchise renewals, developing agreements that brought a public access studio and an additional channel to carry public access programming to the city.

The studio and programming is operated by a non-profit organization, Milpitas Community Television Channel 26 (MCTV26), and funded by Comcast. Programming is also streamed live from their website, Utilizing the studio, a new current events television show, Milpitas Magazine, is produced and aired weekly on cable Channel 26, and streamed from its website,

The commission was also instrumental in developing the free public Wi-Fi Internet access network. Built out as a small wireless network around 2002, it had previously only been used for the city's public safety needs.

"Earthlink was installing networks in other cities and saw what we had. It was relatively easy for them to build out our existing network. They operated the network for just over a year before dropping their wireless business line," explained Marion.

Earthlink offered the network to the city if they would take all the hardware, which they did. However the city didn't have the means to operate it, so they looked for an outsource solution. Milpitas chose to partner with Silicon Valley Unwired, a public/private non-profit organization, and with Google to offer the free basic wireless Internet service throughout the city. Milpitas is one of only two Bay Area cities to offer free Wi-Fi citywide.

Marion explained that the commission and the Information Services Department use a Five Year Master Plan in developing technology projects. That Master Plan is reviewed midway through its life-cycle to ensure it is still in line with technology trends, as advances in technology can render projects obsolete before they ever get implemented.

An external consultant developed the original Master Plan in 1995, at a cost of $50,000. The Telecommunications Commission, at no additional cost to the city, developed subsequent Master Plans and midpoint reviews. Marion estimates that the city has saved approximately $250,000 over the past ten years.

The current 2007 plan is due for its midpoint review during a presentation to the Council on April 20. Commission Chair Albert Alcorn and fellow commissioners will outline recent project completions, revisions and new projects the commission is recommending.

One major project, discussed at the commission's February 22 meeting, is the submission of an application for the Google Fiber for Communities initiative. According to Google's website, they are planning to build and test an ultra-high speed fiber optic network that would provide Internet connectivity to homes at over 1 gigabit per second. That's a 100-fold increase to the data flow to which most homes have access today.

Municipalities with populations from 50,000 to 500,000 have until March 26 to submit a Request for Information form. Being the first of a handful of cities to have a Telecommunications Commission with a history of delivering innovative services to the community may give the City of Milpitas a competitive advantage.

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