GR Starts Own 'Superior' WiFi Effort

October 15, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Haven may have been the first city in the state to go wireless, but Mayor George Heartwell said the Grand Rapids WiFi system will be superior.

Heartwell made that comment at last week’s meeting of the Downtown Development Authority. There, the mayor noted that new technology has made systems already in place, like the one in Grand Haven, virtually obsolete, and that the city’s soon-to-come high-speed, wireless system will take advantage of the most modern equipment to deliver Internet access to homes and businesses.

“When we do implement it shortly after the first of the year it will be superior to those that exist,” said Heartwell, who represents the city on the DDA.

The mayor was referring to the WiMAX broadband technology developed by the Intel Corp., makers of the Pentium processor. Intel claims WiMAX accelerates access and extends coverage, so fewer antennas are needed to blanket an area.

Deputy City Manager Gregory Sundstrom, a member of the WiFi task force put together by City Manager Kurt Kimball to provide wireless coverage throughout the city, told board members it wasn’t long ago that the cost to build a wireless network approached $1 million per square mile. Today, he said that cost is closer to $25,000 for each square mile due to advances made in wireless broadband technology.

Sundstrom added that just a few years ago WiFi antennas covered only a few hundred feet, but he said advanced versions cover from three to five miles today.

To get the effort underway, the city will pay the CommunityMediaCenter $19,000 to serve as a consultant for the system. CMC will study existing systems, review best practices, interview key partners in the project and generate RFPs from private providers.

The city selected CMC for the task because its executive director, Dirk Koning, is known throughout much of the world as an expert in this field. Koning has consulted in Atlanta and Seattle on their WiFi systems.

“He does understand the technology,” said Sundstrom.

“I think he is a good guy to bring on for this service,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler.

Sundstrom said the CMC is charging the city a lower fee than it has charged other cities and that Koning and his staff should have a report ready by the end of the year.

The DDA, the SmartZone Authority and the city will split the price of the contract. DDA members agreed last week to spend $6,333 on the project, an amount that covers their one-third share. The DDA became a player in the effort because in July it began to consider providing wireless access throughout downtown.

Sundstrom told the board that he wasn’t certain yet who would own the system. He said the city could own it or a private firm could, but added he preferred that a public-private partnership take the reins.

As for access fees, Sundstrom said the national average was about $16 a month, or less than half of what cable companies charge. Wireless systems can charge subscribers lower fees than cable companies can because the investment in a WiFi infrastructure isn’t nearly as costly or as complex as a wired one.    

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