Does GR Need WiFi

August 5, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — A year removed from Grand Haven’s short-lived fame as the nation’s first “hot city,” the state’s collective wireless broadband Internet initiatives are all well underway.

Oakland, Ottawa, Marquette and Muskegon counties and the city of Grand Rapids are among hundreds of municipalities across 46 states planning or deploying broadband projects.

In truth, the Upper Peninsula town of Gladstone (pop. 5,000) beat Grand Haven by nearly a year. In 2003, the rural community north of Escanaba erected a 106-foot tower and worked out a deal with Charter Communications to tap into its cable broadband network. The tower sends wireless Internet signals that are picked up by antennas at customers’ homes.

In Grand Haven, some subscribers to Ottawa Wireless service do require an antenna for home access. Grand Haven’s network is built with Wi-Fi, the technology commonly associated with “hot zones” in coffee houses, restaurants and wireless networks in homes and businesses. The most ubiquitous of high-speed Internet technology, Wi-Fi can grant access to any laptop or PC that enters its network. However, its range is limited: The Grand Haven network, purportedly the world’s largest, required mounting hundreds of radio transmitter and relay antennas on the city’s street poles.

The intent in Grand Haven was to facilitate a low-cost alternative in the private sector and ubiquitous access for tourists on the beach, boats and sidewalk. In Gladstone, on the other hand, there was no broadband Internet service. If the city didn’t provide it, no one would.

When Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell announced plans to cover the city’s 48 square miles with a Wi-Fi canopy, the only apparent goal of the Hot Zone Cool City program was to provide wireless connectivity to all residents, businesses and schools.

He trumpeted the “hot city” as an economic development tool to attract and retain business, reduce the digital divide, facilitate wireless technology use for citizens and businesses, and to create a “Cool City” to attract and retain young professionals.

When Mark Knudsen, Ottawa County’s planning and grants director, wrote his wireless broadband Request for Proposal last year, he did so with the hope that a public-private partnership could do what cable and DSL providers hadn’t: provide countywide access.

“Early on the point was raised that the public sector shouldn’t be involved in a private market,” Knudsen said. “But we provide access to our poles and work with them through licensing fees, and they’re not doing anything to facilitate the process.”

Muskegon released an RFP in November as one of two counties selected by the state for the Digital Divide Investment Program, a broadband grant and loan package worth $4.2 million to provide affordable high-speed Internet service to low- and moderate-income families.

In the first phase of deployment, funded by a $2.2 million grant, Arialink Broadband will provide wireless Internet connections to five lower-income rural communities — Cedar Creek, Egelston, Holton and Moorland townships and the village of Lakewood Club.

From there, Arialink will spread that network throughout the entire county, laying fiber-optic line to all four corners and deploying Wi-Fi canopies where appropriate for economic development, such as along the lakeshore and downtown Muskegon.

According to Eduardo Bedoya, information services manager for Muskegon County, only 25 percent to 30 percent of the county and 45 percent to 50 percent of residents have access to broadband Internet. The county has little penetration along the Lakeshore and in rural areas, and little Internet use among its lower-income residents.

“We are trying to build an economic model and flip it on its head,” Bedoya said. “We want to get the low-income communities really, really connected.”

For the first three years of service, Arialink is locked by the grant into a monthly price of $18.99 for basic service, with a $25 installation fee.

Oakland County proposes an even cheaper service: free.

The Wireless Oakland program is easily the nation’s most ambitious Wi-Fi project to date. In April, County Executive L. Brooks Patterson laid out his vision to make Oakland County completely wireless by 2006.

Companies would flock, he said, to a county so tech-savvy and cutting-edge that the Internet floats through the air where they can capture it — for free — and use it to make money.

Residents will have home access in exterior rooms and can buy an antenna for full use, and the county will offer free or low-cost computers to underserved residents.

The service will be available free of charge, with higher speeds available for a fee.

Estimated at a cost of $50 million to $100 million, Oakland is currently evaluating proposals from 12 vendors — including Azulstar, the engineering component of Ottawa Wireless — to blanket the entirety of the 910-square-mile county.

In return, the county is offering its 2,400 telephone poles and streetlights.

Program manager Scott Oppmann said the vendors are expecting revenue from the higher-speed services, along with advertising on the network’s login screen.

“Many of them are looking at this as an avenue just like print media and TV,” he said.

Unlike Muskegon and Ottawa, Oakland is one of the state’s most wired counties. Wireless Oakland is being billed as an economic development tool, aimed at attracting business. Meanwhile, it will provide access to underserved residents.

“The concept is to supplement traditional fixed-line broadband services, not to usurp or replace them,” Oppman said. “We’re pushing the concept of pervasive computing and mobile computing.”

In Grand Rapids, the business model won’t be decided until after the 10 demonstration projects currently underway wrap up this month. Full deployment should begin in December.

But should it?

The entire city is guaranteed access to Comcast Corp.’s cable Internet service. If Comcast is too expensive, SBC Communications’ DSL is available for only $14.95. The Grand Rapids service will likely cost around $20.

A “digital divide” that separates access by the rich and the poor to broadband Internet is no longer the case. According to the FCC, 99 percent of the nation now has access to high-speed Internet. The divide is now characterized by access to computers, which are found in only 56.5 percent of American households, according to U.S. Census findings.

During a speech at the “wire-cutting” ceremony for the Wealthy Theatre demonstration site — one of 10 currently up and running — Heartwell only briefly mentioned the digital divide and “Cool Cities” — central components of the initiative six months ago.

“Imagine Grand Rapids with wireless broadband access in police cars, so that Amber Alerts can be delivered to the police cruiser instantly,” he said. “Imagine that every fire truck has wireless broadband access, blueprints on industrial buildings, hazardous buildings …”

In truth, Grand Rapids residents and businesses might need a citywide wireless network far less than its public services.

“We’re involved in this project because we want to use it for public safety and municipal use,” said Sally Wesorick, Hot Zone Cool City program manager.

Grand Rapids first installed computers in its police cruisers in 1987. The system works by sending digital transmissions over the four-channel voice network shared with the fire department.

“What we have now works, but we don’t do anything more,” said Ralph Gould, communications bureau manager for the Grand Rapids Police Department. “We need more data capacity, and legally we can’t go out and get it. But if we use this technology, we can.”

According to Gould, that network has reached its technological limit. While the vehicle laptops can support photos of wanted suspects or blueprints of a burning building, they can’t be transmitted through the radio.

Some improvement could be made if the city could add a fifth channel, but the FCC has none to give. Grand Rapids has four times as many channels as Boston, a city with three times the population.    

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