Media Center Takes Step Into Broadband Market

April 10, 2002
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The Community Media Center is preparing to move into Phase II of its Mobile Learning Lab for Information Education (MOLLIE).

The center is home to public access channels LiveWire and GRTV, plus low-cost Internet provider GrandNet and radio station WYCE.

MOLLIE’s function is to help fill in some of the gaps for many low-income residents who cannot get broadband Internet connections either because the rates are too expensive for them or because access simply isn’t available in some low-income neighborhoods.

“It’s a pure business model,” said the center’s executive director, Dirk Koning.

“Certain neighborhoods don’t have the priority of other neighborhoods,” he explained. “The people of those neighborhoods are less likely to purchase a broadband service, so companies may not go there first, if ever.”

So with a $234,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, coupled with an $80,000 grant from SBC/Ameritech, the center was able to unveil Phase I of MOLLIE in October.

The red Ford Econoline van serves as sort of a broadband-on-wheels access point. It’s able to serve that function thanks to 20 Apple iBook laptop computers ganged in a mini-wireless network in any given location with transmission rates of 2.4 Ghz. 

Koning says that in minutes, MOLLIE can turn an empty room in a school or other facility into a fully operational computer lab, simply by moving the iBooks.  Each iBook is set up to transmit and receive in the room through a firewire with MOLLIE. 

According to Koning, the only investment required is time and training. 

He said the van also is equipped with 16 digital video cameras that can be linked to the laptops, each containing editing software for use of MOLLIE as a fully functional multimedia center that can feed video directly to the Internet or GRTV.

That was Phase I of MOLLIE, already in use across West Michigan by many non-profits including schools, community groups, and even migrant workers.

On March 15, the center accepted the last of the deployment proposals for Phase II.

This upgrade of MOLLIE will establish a 5.4 Ghz wireless local area network operating line-of-site either with the antenna atop the smokestack of the CMC building on Bridge Street or the WYCE radio tower in Wyoming at Clyde Park and 28th Street. 

The long-term goal is to begin leaving the relatively inexpensive MOLLIE “transceivers” behind at sites that, in turn, will enable any firewire-equipped computer (an upgrade available for well-under $100 on any model of the past five years) to link to the center’s T-1 Internet connection. 

The arrangement gives non-profit organizations 24-hour broadband service without the presence of the MOLLIE van.

The range of the network consists of a five-mile radius around each broadcast site. The center is currently in the midst of negotiations with iServe, which donates the center’s T-1 connection, to add another broadcast site, as well as negotiations with several cellular phone service providers.

“Right now we have a contract with AT&T wireless for a purely cell phone use of our tower,” Koning said.

He explained that the arrangement allows AT&T the use of the Wyoming tower with a coverage range that includes most of Grand Rapids, Wyoming and some of Kentwood, and puts an additional $50,000 into the center’s coffers.

Now, Koning is negotiating deals with other cellular and wireless Internet providers.

“It’s a different game when you’re not playing for profit,” Koning said. “I don’t want their money, I just want access to their network.”

Through the deals, a number of telecom companies will be able to place antennas on the WYCE tower, and MOLLIE will be able to fill any gaps left in its coverage by use of its partners’ other broadcast sites.

“MOLLIE will be able to grow exponentially as their networks expand,” Koning said. “They don’t perceive us as competition. Everybody wins. It’s a pretty interesting example of a public-private partnership.”

Though MOLLIE will deliver the same product as many of the telecom companies, Koning said it is not viewed as a threat to the market because it will provide non-profit access to neighborhoods that otherwise probably would not receive any for-profit service.

Koning declined to name other Internet providers with whom he is negotiating because a few of them are very aggressive competitors.

  As MOLLIE’s second phase enters its 60- to 90-day deployment, an entrepreneurial angle will come to light. To help subsidize its nonprofit program, Koning said MOLLIE will be available for rent for business applications.

One use of MOLLIE, developed and soon to be tested by Delta Strategies, goes like this:

“Say you have a convention at someplace like the Days Inn,” Koning said, “where you don’t have a large computer space. You can set up a computer lab in a room there and give the conventioners Internet access, maybe even video-conferencing.

“Or, say 200 to 300 people show up,” he continued, “and you have 10 people sitting around a table in a hall when a speaker comes in. 

“You can have one laptop at each table connected to the speaker up front, showing economic trends, etc.  Then, during discussion, somebody keeps track of the key points, either by keyboard or verbally through the microphone.

“Then when the speaker might say, ‘Let’s hear from Table 17,’  Table 17 can send their key points up to the big screen, while the recorder reads them off through the computer microphone which is now patched into the PA.

“Now, say Betty in Kentwood is home with two sick kids,” Koning adds.

“Through the Internet, she can also see Table 17’s key points and the whole presentation, and say through her computer, ‘Hey, Table 17 is missing the point!’

“It makes for a fun interactive and practical tool in that regard,” Koning said.

MOLLIE and other center projects will be discussed at the upcoming “Digitize This!” Conference in mid-April at the GVSU Eberhard Center.

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