GR Wi-Fi Will It Work

September 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — For every Grand Haven, there is a Rio Rancho.

Recognizing that growth is naturally limited in Grand Haven — with a population of 12,000 — the proprietor of its citywide Wi-Fi network, Ottawa Wireless, sought opportunity outside West Michigan through its Azulstar Networks subsidiary.

With 8,000 Intel employees, Rio Rancho, N.M., is home to the chipmaker’s marketing division and largest American manufacturing facility. As the industry leader in Wi-Fi technology, Intel had intended the city to become the crown jewel of public hot spots.

After two years of failed attempts, however, the city revoked the chosen vendor’s franchise and opted to let Azulstar pick up the pieces.

As similar efforts in Grand Rapids and Ottawa and Muskegon counties move forward, there are few certainties separating the Grand Havens from the Rio Ranchos.

“Honestly, it’s too early to say what works and what doesn’t,” said Bill Stark, president of Excelsio Communications. Excelsio was contracted by the CommunityMediaCenter to evaluate Grand Rapids’ 10 HotZoneCoolCity demonstration sites.

“Municipal-owned wireless is still kind of a new concept. But, the ones that fail have done so because there wasn’t enough thoughtful planning. We know of some cities that are banking on startups as their ISPs — that’s a recipe for disaster.”

The successful deployments all moved slowly, Stark noted.

“It takes a little longer, but the right methodology is to do your homework and do your research,” he said. “Basically, do what Grand Rapids is doing.”

Through its evaluation process, the city soon will be able to determine which technology will work best and structure an RFP around that. Excelsio is expected to make its report to the city in the coming weeks.

“Once you understand the technical limitations, then you can start deciding who the users will be, how much bandwidth and what applications they’ll have, and what kind of business opportunity it is for the city.”

On a global scale, the technical limitations of wireless Internet, whether Wi-Fi or point-to-point, have been glossed over enough that they present little concern. Not counting the demonstration sites, downtown Grand Rapids has several dozen proofs of concept, and has since 2003.

Even the least tech-savvy resident can flip open a laptop at

Rosa Parks Circle
, GrandValleyStateUniversity or Starbucks, and see that, yes, Wi-Fi works. Then there is Grand Haven a short drive away, and, failing that, an entire aisle at Best Buy.

Of course, the technology has seldom been the question. Its failures are easily attributed to vendors, so it’s really just a matter of choosing the right partner.

The real concerns are much less tangible.

According to Stark, municipal wireless has presented a continuum of business models. On one end are projects like Grand Haven and MuskegonCounty, which grant access to assets like street poles and other resources but don’t finance or operate the network.

On the other end are cities like Philadelphia, which will spend $10 million of taxpayer money to develop its own network and will wholesale the bandwidth to private ISPs, and Spokane, Wash., where the city is the ISP.

Both models have the potential to support services like public safety, public works and traffic and sanitation in addition to providing Internet to consumers or businesses.

In Grand Rapids and OaklandCounty, those internal features are primary goals, and neither municipality intends to contribute tax dollars. In cases like these, the municipality might not have any ownership claim to the network, instead paying for its use alongside its constituents.

For this reason, many projects do involve tax dollars.

“There are a number of networks up and operational that are city owned, and there is a lot of documentation as it relates to how cities are saving money using these types of networks,” Stark said. “I would say that if a city did want to pay for its own network, and own it and use it for its own services and not for the consumer, not for business, there is a justification for that.

“That’s a no-brainer. These networks pay for themselves pretty quickly.”

But when the municipality looks to open up that network to private interests — as nearly all have done, whether for the good of the community or as a revenue source — incumbent providers cry foul.

“The SBCs and Verizons don’t like the city being a competitor — which is what they will be,” Stark said.

For nearly a year, city officials have assured that mounting legislative efforts involving municipal wireless Internet will not affect Grand Rapids, no matter the outcome. If the two bills, SB 528 and HB 4600, currently before the House to prevent “government entities from offering communications service except for use by the entity itself,” were to become law, Grand Rapids’ intended public-private model could still be used.

But city officials let their poker face slip last week with a resolution urging lawmakers against such legislation and similar language in this year’s rewrite of the Michigan Telecommunications Act.

“We’re urging lawmakers to not do anything that would preclude us from being involved in wireless,” said Sally Wesorick, HotZoneCoolCity project manager. “So far, we’ve had real good reaction at all levels to our project. We’re not looking at a city-owned network like some people are opposed to.”

In Grand Rapids, some of the companies that stand to lose the most from a citywide Wi-Fi network have signed on as partners. FreedomNet Solutions, which manages a collection of hot spots that could be made obsolete by the city’s network, was the first vendor to launch a demonstration site.

Sprint’s 3G service is also threatened by municipal Wi-Fi, but it built the Van Andel Research Institute’s demonstration site. Only Comcast Corp. stands to lose as much as SBC, but the telecommunications giant has provided connectivity throughout the pilot phase.

“The fact that SBC is helping, friendly and courteous, shows that maybe they see their role as the backhaul provider,” Stark said. “Maybe their place in this effort is to provide the connection back to the Internet, and if that’s true, then it’s a win-win.”

According to SBC DSL spokesman Steve Kaufman, the company is opposed to taxpayer money supporting broadband development, such as what he expects to happen in Oakland County, but overall, the company and the municipalities share the same goals: to get broadband Internet to the masses.

Comcast Vice President of Communications Richard Ruggiero echoed Kaufman’s statements.

Federal legislation introduced this spring could negate any state efforts. If the McCain-Lautenberg bill becomes law, it will create protections and standards for municipal broadband Internet.

After the political hurdles, the largest concerns are in the hands of vendors. The project has already seen its share of Rio Ranchos. All 10 sites were originally slated to wrap up last week. Only three have finished their eight-week tests: FreedomNet Solutions’ Grand Rapids Police Department site, Nortel Networks’ City Hall site, and Arialink Broadband’s CrestonHigh School site.

One vendor pulled out of the project: M.E. Global Net. Another two are still delayed: Defacto Wireless Distribution (Seymour Branch Library) and Northrop Grumman (Kent County Campus). The four others launched weeks behind schedule.

“We’ve had some snags,” Wesorick said. “There were delays getting permission to mount an access point on a building or a Consumers Power pole. Things that should have taken three days took three weeks.”

When the sites went up, residents took advantage. In just over a month, the Wealthy Theatre site had nearly 7,000 log-ins.

“The one thing that I wish we’d done better is get the word out — done a better job of marketing and letting people know this is available,” Wesorick said.

Looking ahead for Grand Rapids, it will draft its business model and choose partners and technologies by the close of 2005. To date, the goals of HotZoneCoolCity have been vague. Before the deployment begins, those goals will be defined into promises and expectations.    

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