Ottawa To Go The Last Mile

March 22, 2004
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WEST OLIVE — As a Grand Haven entrepreneur launches a citywide, wireless Internet network, Ottawa County planners are putting out feelers on whether there’s interest to pursue a similar venture on a broader scale.

The county’s Planning and Grants Department last week sent surveys to Internet service providers and related companies in the area to gauge interest and possibly lure a firm to study development of a countywide wireless network.

If a company comes forward with a strong interest, Mark Knudsen — planning and grants director — says Ottawa County can offer logistical support and planning assistance to such a venture through, among other things, helping to identify the best locations for antennas, radio transmitters and receivers.

“We’re fishing,” Knudsen said. “The bottom line is that we would like wireless coverage across the entire county for residents and business endeavors.”

Planners view a countywide wireless network as a way to bring high-speed Internet access to all areas of Ottawa County.

A study conducted last year under the state’s LinkMichigan initiative found that Ottawa County had spotty access to affordable high-speed Internet services. While the entire county has access to at least one form of broadband — due to satellite television services that fill the gaps in rural areas — in some cases it’s at a price that residents and small businesses are unwilling or unable to pay.

Knudsen’s ultimate goal is to erase that issue. Surveying the companies involved in Internet services is merely the first step of many toward possibly getting the initiative off the ground and studying the feasibility of a countywide wireless network, he said.

“We want businesses and residents all over to have access — and to have access at a reasonable price,” Knudsen said. “We’re in the discussion stages and the information-gathering stages, and we’re hoping that there can be some kind of marriage between the public and private sectors to make this thing a reality for Ottawa County.”

In Grand Haven, the reality began to emerge earlier this month when Ottawa Wireless LLC launched a wireless network that now covers 70 city blocks, including the downtown business district and the waterfront, as well as an area of Lake Michigan 20 miles from shore, from south of Holland to north of Muskegon.

CEO Tyler van Houwelingen plans to have wireless coverage over the entire city within three months. The company sells high-speed, wireless Internet access for $19.95 per month at 256 kbps — a price and speed that beats DSL or cable modem — plus additional fees if additional equipment is needed at the home or business. Connections are available to businesses at higher speeds.

Where Ottawa Wireless, which earlier this year signed a franchise agreement with the city of Grand Haven, provides the proverbial “last mile” of high-speed access, Knudsen is envisioning a broader network across Ottawa County that would represent a far larger undertaking.

Knudsen believes that sufficient market demand exists for the county to attract a company to look at it. He said he’s talked to representatives of one company that are “very interested in this and kind of excited.”

“I’m very hopeful,” Knudsen said.

Twenty percent of the businesses in Ottawa County that are online presently use DSL service for a high-speed connection. Another 15 percent are connected via cable modem and far smaller percentages use other high-speed formats, according to the April 2003 results from the LinkMichigan study.

About 37 percent of households in Ottawa County that are online are connected to a high-speed service, primarily via cable modem offered by their cable television provider, the study found.

Fifty-seven percent of the businesses in Ottawa County that connected to the Internet paid less than $50 a month for the service.

Nationally, 21.5 million households, or about one-fifth of all U.S. households, were connected to the Internet via broadband as the end of 2003, according to Jupiter Research. The research firm predicts that 46 million households, representing half of the households online and 40 percent of all U.S. households, will connect via a high-speed service by 2008.    

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