In terms of physical size and length of time, the redevelopment of Stapleton Municipal Airport in Denver is massive. Covering seven and a half square miles, the site is roughly a third the size of the island of Manhattan. Build-out of the development is expected to take between 15 and 20 years and eventually will include between 12,000 and 15,000 units.
Among the challenges in preparing the site to deliver finished lots to builders was its lack of many of the basics that builders expect to have in place.
"There was no infrastructure at all," says Hank Baker, senior vice president of Forest City Stapleton, the master developer of the site. "It was all runways."
As long as the construction work was at the edges of the development area, close to existing infrastructure, that was fine.
"We strung some telephone wires a couple hundred feet and put up construction trailers," Baker says.
When they hit the second phase a half-mile farther into the site, the thought process was "OK, let's string some more wire." When Baker got the bill from the phone company, it was nearly $30,000--and the installation was three weeks late. The delay was excruciating. Without the lines, the site staff had no phone service or access to e-mail. Everything was done via cell phone.
Then there were the inevitable mishaps--a pole in the middle of a street that had to be moved, a trench that needed to be dug, or a wire that was accidentally cut. Every incident required another call to the phone company, creating a string of maddening disruptions.
Then Baker started reading about how Starbucks was coming out with hot spots for wireless and a neighborhood that was looking at installing 802B lines for wireless connections. By going wireless, the process of moving a construction trailer and getting its phone and computer lines up and running could drop from weeks to minutes.
"I said, 'How real is all this? How much [will wireless cost]?' The answer I got was 'Probably $20,000 to $25,000.' I was spending that to string wires all over the place--at [the phone company's] scheduling," said Baker.
The cost and time savings alone were more than enough to make Baker flip the switch to go wireless on the site. (It's believed to be the first use of wireless in the country on a construction project of this kind.)
"As we move trailers around, we just redirect antennas," he says. "It takes 20 minutes to get data and telephones connected. When we have a sub that needs to move a trailer as we move farther east next year, we'll mount equipment on the control tower, point it at their trailer, and they're in business. It allows us to control our own destiny."
Like night and day
Beazer Homes Colorado, one of the builders at Stapleton, saw the impact immediately.
"It was like night and day when we flipped the switch," says Peter Simons, division president. "We've got a pretty involved online sales and construction system. If they're trying to do updates through dial-up, it's terrible. It's so much faster for them."
Besides being able to provide data at DSL-plus speeds, the technology is sufficiently advanced today to implement Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) for Net-based phone calls and video conferencing. Plus, T1 lines coming into the site will interface with wireless.
"What that's also done is make us say, 'We've got this equipment, why can't we do a hot spot here?' " Baker says. "As our residents begin to go to our town green as we open our first town center, you can get wireless data wherever you want to go in the community. The next logical step is to deliver wireless data to all our residents. We could have justified it just on the savings on stringing telephone lines. Now we can experiment with it and see how it runs out."
The project wasn't quite as easy as Baker makes it sound, says Joel Kappes, president of Milestone Networks, the Parker, Colo., firm that handled the installation. The size of the site presented an "engineering dilemma" to create a network large enough to support such a large base of users. A typical community would require 150 to 200 wireless nodes; the Stapleton site needed 15,000. Finding an equipment manufacturer that could handle the site's future growth needs wasn't simple.
"Stapleton is huge," he says. "At the end of the day, it's just a big, giant monster."
The end result is a much higher level of mobility and reduced costs. A traditional T1 line would cost $700 to $800 a month, Kappes says. The service runs about half that much. The system gives the construction trailers high-speed Internet access, local and long distance phone lines, fax capabilities, virtual private networks to tie into each builder's corporate computer systems, and the ability to use wireless personal digital assistants, or PDAs. That will come in handy as neighborhoods are completed.
"A maintenance guy can cruise the development with a wireless PDA, checking off work orders," Kappes says.
Plus, builders will be able to offer home buyers Internet access from the day they move in, with the cost rolled into the price of the house. Simons is looking at just that kind of scenario for Beazer's communities. If it works out the way he'd like, Beazer will have a revenue-sharing agreement with the wireless provider and the sales centers and construction trailers will be connected for free.
"The revenue sharing won't be a major make-or-break deal for our finances," he says. "It just takes all that hassle out of it."
The key to making wireless work for a builder, Simons says, is finding a provider with the financial resources and a business plan "to give you confidence that they can actually execute.
"That's been the issue in the post-bubble bursting age," he says. "A lot of these companies got a lot of cash at first but they can't deliver now. If you have to do business with six different providers to reach 15 sites, it's more brain damage than it's worth."
With the success at Stapleton, Beazer Homes Colorado now is working with Milestone and two other companies to provide wireless to its sales and construction offices on other jobsites.
"You can't rely on DSL and cable being there for new communities," Simons says. "We're now trying to figure out how they can serve other communities we're building in where they don't have an air traffic control tower to put a dish on."