Grand Haven: A Wireless Showcase?

December 15, 2003
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GRAND HAVEN — The founder of a small firm deploying a high-speed, wireless telecommunications network in Grand Haven believes the technology’s future is limitless and plans to use the new system as a showcase for future expansion.

Tyler van Houwelingen, founder and CEO of Ottawa Wireless, plans to have the network available citywide in “a matter of weeks,” offering high-speed, mobile Internet connections for $19.99 a month.

The network, which uses small antennas and transmitters mounted atop power poles, is presently undergoing testing over a small area around the city’s downtown and waterfront before van Houwelingen rolls out the service citywide. Users connecting to the system via a laptop computer have the ability to access the Internet from anywhere in town.

Once he proves the technology’s ability locally, van Houwelingen wants to begin deploying other networks elsewhere.

“Grand Haven is really our showcase,” van Houwelingen said. “I want to go as far as I possibly can. I do think there’s an opportunity for one of these networks in every city in the world.”

Van Houwelingen is initially targeting local restaurants and coffee houses in the downtown area to buy into the system so their customers can bring in their laptop computers and go online while having lunch or sipping their morning coffee.

For other businesses, van Houwelingen believes he has a low-cost way for companies with an internal intranet to connect multiple facilities in town with a “last mile” high-speed connection that’s far more affordable than installing fiber-optic lines.

“It really is a new way of installing last-mile access,” van Houwelingen said.

In that respect, the deployment of a wireless network in town provides economic developers a new tool to help market the community to prospective employers, both from a quality-of-life standpoint for employees and as a unique component of the local telecommunications infrastructure.

“It’s another feather in our cap,” said Tricia Ryan, vice president for economic development for The Chamber of Commerce in Grand Haven.

The chamber recently placed a renewed emphasis on employer recruitment, Ryan said. Having a wireless network deployed in town “definitely will be highlighted” to prospective firms, she said.

“As technology progresses, we’re going to need more and more options for companies. This is another tool in our bag we can offer people,” Ryan said. “It just makes us that much more marketable.”

The wireless network is the result of a partnership between the Grand Haven Board of Light and Power (the city’s municipal utility), the City of Grand Haven, and Ottawa Wireless, which is also an Internet service provider.

Van Houwelingen and the BLP are negotiating for the municipal utility to buy the wireless network in the future. His preference is to deploy a network in communities and then sell it to a local public or private operator.

The BLP has in the past examined developing a high-speed transmission network in Grand Haven. That idea has been tempered each time by the estimated $12 million price tag, Administrative Service Director John Hoffman said.

The utility is interested in the wireless network because it provides the high-speed system people have been wanting at a development cost that’s far less, Hoffman said. The BLP was “intrigued and excited” when Ottawa Wireless brought the wireless network concept forward, he said.

“Following a successful demonstration project, we are convinced that this type of network will be a great benefit to the community,” Hoffman said. “This is the future of information delivery.”

Van Houwelingen sees wireless connectivity, known as WiFi, as the “next utility,” similar to water, power and telephone services, and is talking with local leaders in the cross-river communities of Ferrysburg and Spring Lake about deploying the network there.

The WiFi technology he’s deploying in Grand Haven will have the ability to carry telephone calls and video signals. Van Houwelingen plans to upgrade the system by 2005 to transmit high-definition television signals and enhancements to make it operate at higher speeds.

“It’s really unlimited what we can do with it,” van Houwelingen said. “It’s going to be very surprising, very quickly what can be done with this stuff.”

Analysts and researchers in the high-tech industry anticipate that the use of emerging WiFi technology will expand rapidly.

Forrester Research last year predicted that by 2006, some 5 million U.S. households will switch to mobile, wireless networks offering high-speed Internet connections. The number of uses for WiFi will expand as well, researchers say.

In Grand Haven, among the initial targeted users are campers and boaters. Ottawa Wireless will offer access for 12 cents per minute and plans to market the service next spring directly to boaters coming into the harbor and planning to stay a few days, and to campers visiting Grand Haven State Park, one of the busiest state parks in Michigan.

Van Houwelingen envisions selling pre-paid cards for wireless Internet access at local businesses that cater to tourists.

Marci Cisneros, executive director of the Grand Haven/Spring Lake Area Visitors Bureau, plans to incorporate the wireless network’s availability in the organization’s 2004 marketing plan. The network is a unique amenity she can use to promote the area to travelers.

“Everything counts when you’re taking inventory on a community’s assets and I would definitely add this to the list,” Cisneros said.    

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