GH Wins Hot City Race

July 30, 2004
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GRAND HAVEN — Grand Haven became the first city within the United States to offer wireless Internet access across the entirety of its city borders when it lit up the last of its outlying antennas at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The brainchild of Tyler van Houwelingen, CEO of Ottawa Wireless and a former Intel engineer, the distinction marks the end of a venture two years in the making that has defied a number of industry preconceptions.

“Me and my team started working on this before anyone else started to look at doing it as a city,” van Houwelingen said. “Early on I had a very smart guy tell me that it was possible, but I didn’t believe him at the beginning. I feel bad about that now, because later I went back into the lab and there was this a-ha!”

Van Houwelingen’s firm put together a design using the standard Wi-Fi (802.11a, b, g) protocol used commonly to create wireless LANs (WLANs) or “hot spots” in local coffee shops, business and homes. But instead of setting up hundreds of small WLANs around the city, Ottawa Wireless was able to partner with the Grand Haven Board of Light & Power to create a relay network running the length of the city’s pre-existing municipal infrastructure.

Hidden among Grand Haven’s street poles are 60 Wi-Fi radio transmitters and more than 200 relay antennas, looping the equivalent of a high-speed fiber optic line around the length of the city. Proxim Corp. provided the radios, which include Proxim ORiNOCO AP-4000 tri-band access points and the Proxim Tsunami MP.11a point-to-multipoint wireless backhaul system.

While Zamora, Spain, holds the title of the world’s first “hot city”, the race to be the first hot city in the United States has been hotly contested in the past few months. A number of cities have recently laid claim to the title, including Half Moon Bay, Calif., Spokane, Wash., and Rio Rancho, N.M., but although all covered significant portions of their respective cities with ubiquitous Internet access, all fell drastically short of covering the entire city.

“I wasn’t sure if we were going to achieve it,” van Houwelingen said. “I thought at some point some city would jump up and be able to do this. There have even been a couple of cities saying that they’ve got the biggest thing in the world. The Grand Rapids Press even ran an article a few weeks ago that said Spokane, Washington, had 100 blocks covered. We’ve had 100 blocks covered since last fall.”

Upon first finishing his hot city design, van Houwelingen began searching out a city in which to implement it. So he returned to his hometown of Grand Haven. From the very start, he made his intentions clear that he intended to make Grand Haven the first hot city.

“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Grand Haven Mayor Roger Bergman said. “It’s great that Tyler (van Houwelingen) has given the city and all of us in Grand Haven the opportunity to be a part of this. It took a lot of ambition, drive and foresight to push this through, and now I’m excited for him and I’m excited for Grand Haven.”

Bergman was part of the initial pilot program that began last December. He and 24 other Grand Haven residents agreed to pay a nominal fee to be part of Ottawa Wireless’ commercial launch late last year. When all the bugs had been worked out, Ottawa Wireless began its standard service on March 1.

The company now has 300 subscribers, a 100 percent increase over the past month, and has provided short-term access to hundreds of others this summer.

“We have been waiting until we were end-to-end to make an announcement,” van Houwelingen said. “We wanted to have it up running and covered so that we could go anywhere and we were stable and solid.”

The service itself is a coup for Grand Haven.

For comparable speed Internet access, Grand Rapids residents will pay around $50 a month for DSL or cable Internet service. Ottawa Wireless offers it at half that. Also, the service is ubiquitous; a similar network for home or business in Grand Rapids requires a hardware purchase and some assembly time.

With an extra receiver, boaters can get Internet access as far as 15 miles offshore, a new concept, and for a $5 surcharge, users gain city-wide mobility, a feat until recently believed impossible under the current protocol.

“I’ve had lots of people say that,” van Houwelingen acknowledged. “But then I show them, you can even drive around in your car and maintain access.”

This will come in especially handy once Ottawa Wireless moves its VoIP, voice-over Internet (Internet telephony), into widespread availability in the coming months. The accomplishment of mobile VoIP is another industry sticking point, which Grand Haven may have worked out as well.

The infrastructure is also Wi-Max ready, and will upgrade to the new protocol when it becomes available in the next year.

Ottawa Wireless is now shopping its design to other cities, including Grand Rapids, and will offer licensing agreements to entrepreneurs who wish to set up service in their own cities. There also are plans for a possible expansion of the Grand Haven network across all of Ottawa County.

“It was an absolutely staggering engineering challenge,” van Houwelingen said. “So many things popped up along the way that I never thought would represent challenges. We’re in a position that we’re able to help other cities accomplish this without all the laborious engineering. We’ve got one city under our belts and no one else can say that. We’ve got a magic formula now, and we could build another one in only weeks or months.

“We are expanding and we’re looking to do it fast.”

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