News and Views

Municipal Service Networks:
On Ramps for the Information Superhighway

by David L. Snyder, Esq.

Prompted by the desire to increase efficiency and productivity, some daring local governments are embracing the Information Age by developing high speed Municipal Service Networks (MSN's). A MSN is an advanced communications system that provides video, voice and data connections between the various departments and offices which comprise a local government (including schools, libraries, colleges, hospitals, and special service agencies like fire, water, and sanitation districts). Depending on it configuration, the MSN provides data access to all persons with an address on the system, or an address on any other system to which the MSN is connected. When properly operated and maintained, a MSN can provide a powerful tool for generating taxpayer savings, while improving the level of public service.

A municipality that wishes to implement a MSN must first consider the general information management needs of those who will have access to the network, including municipal employees and the community at large. The first challenge in developing an MSN is to define the operating characteristics of the system. This challenge can be met by applying the twelve point assessment criteria, described in the following section.

MSN Assessment Criteria

The development of a well conceived MSN will require the sponsoring municipality to carefully consider the following twelve points:

  • --Capacity: (volume of data that may be transmitted);
  • --Flexibility: (how easily the system can be modified);
  • --Versatility: (the services and applications designed into the system);
  • --Interoperability: (how easily information is shared or transferred between existing and upgraded systems);
  • --Rate: (overall speed of information exchange);
  • --Fidelity: (clarity of image or data capture with priority often given to distance learning and medical diagnostics);
  • --Security: (ability to protect information);
  • --Survivability: (degree of resistance to natural or manmade crises, as well as the extent and speed at which a system can be restored);
  • --Reach: (the geographic service area of the system);
  • --Openness: (the ease with which the system can be accessed);
  • --Penetration: (density of access facilities within the service area -- purely a function of economics);
  • --Usage: (where, when and how the system will be made available).
Having applied the assessment criteria, and generated a general idea of the type of system that will serve the needs of the community, the municipality's next step in developing an MSN is to draft a Request for Proposals, or "RFP."

An RFP asks interested parties to submit proposals concerning the cost, layout, operation, maintenance, and design of the system. The RFP may be very general, or it may contemplate specific applications. For example, the RFP may ask for proposals whereby advanced diagnostic tools at a county hospital are made available to local clinics; where central library facilities are brought on-line and made widely accessible; where students in various locations will be able to participate interactively with a single teacher; where "job-bank" information is updated continuously and made available throughout the community; where environmental information (such as recycling rates, deliveries to the landfill or incinerator, sewer connections, stream and water flows) is monitored and made available for improved planning -- the possibilities are endless.

Financing the MSN is another matter. We suggest that in preparing the RFP the municipality pay careful attention to the various telecommunications bills which are working their way through Congress. Some of these bills may provide grant money for the development of MSN's, depending on the needs addressed by the system, and how and to whom access is provided. If the RFP is cognizant of pending grant eligibility, it is possible to conceive a system that is "pre-qualified" for federal assistance.

MSN financing may also be possible through the "internalization" of costs. For example, a municipality could install a network that eliminates the need for local telephone service. Instead of paying a local phone company to connect calls between various agencies, the municipality could make the connection through its MSN, and then "pay" the cost of the call into its own sinking fund that amortizes the cost of the MSN. The MSN can thus be financed without raising taxes, and simply by reallocating (or internalizing) existing revenue.

In the 60's and 70's local governments led the way in civil rights. In the 80's, local governments played a major role in advancing recycling and other cutting edge environmental programs. Now, in the 90's, Municipal Service Networks represent one way that municipalities can help those they serve stake a claim in the Information Age.

About the Author--
David L. Snyder is a partner at the law firm of Snyder & Snyder. The firm represents public and private sector clients in the development of telecommunications systems, and has offices in White Plains and New York City. Robert D. Gaudioso, an associate at the firm, assisted in the preparation of this article.

Last updated on 10/31/99.

(c) Copyright WATPA 1998.