Wireless Firm Casting A Wider Web

August 13, 2004
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GRAND HAVEN — After connecting the entire city of Grand Haven to a high-speed wireless Internet network, Ottawa Wireless Inc. is now aiming to branch out to broader horizons.

The small wireless Internet service provider has begun to install antennas in the neighboring communities of Spring Lake and Ferrysburg to expand its coverage area.

It is also working with a collection of private and public interests in Ottawa County to examine the feasibility of a countywide network that can offer affordable high-speed Internet access, and is talking with several other communities across the Midwest about similar ventures.

“It is the beginning,” Ottawa Wireless founder and CEO Tyler van Houwelingen said of the new citywide Grand Haven network, which attracted the attention of state and from federal regulators.

They see the model behind the network in Grand Haven — believed to be the first citywide wireless system in the U.S. — as something to replicate elsewhere to create broader access to high-speed Internet service at affordable rates.

“A seed has been planted and this seed is going to spread throughout Michigan,” said Edwin Harlin, project manager for the Michigan Broadband Development Authority.

Ottawa Wireless uses Wi-Fi technology that’s based on a radio spectrum largely used for devices such as garage door openers and baby monitors. The company offers high-speed access starting at $19.95 per month for 256 kbps and, after fully launching the service in late July, presently has about 300 commercial and residential subscribers.

As Wi-Fi technology further emerges and evolves, state and federal officials say they want to keep a close eye on the firm’s venture in Grand Haven. They regard it as a way to bridge the so-called digital divide and make high-speed Internet access universally available at affordable prices, particularly in rural areas where the deployment of fiber-optic lines is cost-prohibitive.

The development of high-speed networks in rural areas across the United States by the end of 2007 is a major goal for the Federal Communications Commission, said Robert Pepper, chief of the agency’s policy development.

Ottawa Wireless “is a wonderful, shining example” of bringing high-speed Internet access to places where it was previously thought it would cost millions of dollars in investment, Pepper said.

“This is an example for every city and every small town throughout the world,” he said last week during a public demonstration of the Ottawa Wireless network in Grand Haven. “It really is a model for the rest of the country.”

In Michigan, the state’s Broadband Development Authority, the agency that provides financing for private development of high-speed Internet services, wants to work with Ottawa Wireless and replicate the Grand Haven network elsewhere across Michigan.

Harlin cites the relatively low cost and short timeframe of less than two years that it took Ottawa Wireless to plan, test, deploy and fully launch the Wi-Fi network in Grand Haven.

“We’re going to be calling up the mayor and asking, ‘How did you get that thing done?’” Harlin said.

Ottawa Wireless developed the network with the backing of the city of Grand Haven, which granted the firm a franchise agreement, and the Grand Haven Board of Light and Power, which authorized the use of utility poles to position antennas used to beam the wireless signal across the city and into homes and businesses.

Ottawa County’s planner, Mark Knudsen, sees the potential to forge the same kind of public-private cooperation to develop a countywide high-speed network. A 17-member county task force is now studying the idea, which Knudsen believes is doable.

“Based on the success we see here in Grand Haven, that’s probably a very good possibility,” Knudsen said.

Wireless networks hold the potential to transform how people access the Internet at home and at work by providing remote, high-speed connectivity and offering “new freedom and capability that were previously unknown,” van Houwelingen said. He cites the example of one Ottawa Wireless customer who’s a Web designer and moved his office to his boat for the summer.

“Your office is all of Grand Haven,” van Houwelingen said. “Everybody is more connected and more flexible in how they do it.”

Van Houwelingen plans to offer additional telecom services on the wireless network beyond high-speed Internet access. He’s presently testing voice over Internet protocol telephone service that he hopes to fully launch this fall.    

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