GR Wi-Fi RFP Looms

November 23, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The public comment portion of the Grand Rapids City Commission's recent forum on its wireless broadband Internet initiative raised some interesting questions about what the eventual RFP for the citywide Wi-Fi canopy will look like.

First, Mike Karlesky, vice president of software development firm Atomic Object, pleaded with the city to include local technology vendors in the initiative.

"It's very important for local companies to be involved," he said later. "Business is an integral part of pretty much any human activity. We hope that this wireless project will become a very human social community project."

Then, Ken Steensma of FreedomNet Solutions, the only local company to participate in last summer's proof-of-concept demonstration projects, made what at first appeared to be a plea to keep his company involved. But he may have been announcing his company's exit.

"I just simply wanted to affirm that the city knows what they are doing," he said. "They have a tremendous staff that's doing a great job and are setting standards for however this community approaches wireless (Internet)."

With the death of Community Media Center Executive Director Dirk Koning, who spearheaded the initiative with Mayor George Heartwell, the project has moved with an unexpected burden and is somewhat behind schedule.

For instance, the city's 10 demonstration sites were all expected to be active in June and July. Only FreedomNet made its original target date, June 1, and the last of the test sites went live only a few weeks ago at the Kent County Fuller Campus.

"The next step is still unclear," said Steensma, adding in regard to his company: "We have our strategy as far as making sure West and Southwest Michigan have access to Internet, and we need to match up."

As Steensma explained, the "world is moving at warp speed," with business and community needs changing at a continually faster pace. The community's needs are present today, he said, and his company isn't going to wait for the city's project to move forward.

"That's not negotiable," he said. "As a strategy, we're going to move faster. We need to move at our speed vs. everyone else's."

The forum was held to hedge the city's bets against the rewrite of the Michigan Telecommunications Act, which now prohibits the creation of any city-owned and operated telecommunications services not publicly under way by Nov. 1, also the date of the city forum. But there was little outrage toward the state's efforts to prevent such initiatives.

Mostly, people were curious about what the RFP for the citywide network will look like. Sally Wesorick, project manager for the wireless Internet initiative, still isn't certain, but said there will be no preference for local vendors, and the preferred business model remains one that is privately owned and operated. She expected the RFP to be released by Jan. 20.

"The city needs to look at what is best for the city as a whole rather than one company," she said.

Bill Stark, president of Excelsio Communications, the consultant contracted by the city to help evaluate the technology and write the RFP, said that while there have been some examples of small firms emerging in this industry, such as Ottawa Wireless in Grand Haven, they are rare.

The municipal wireless Internet market is a new industry, he said, with the outdoor citywide industry only about 2 or 3 years old. Most of the activity has only happened in the past year, and there are only a handful of companies in the country with any hands-on experience with the technology.

"I could only name 15-20 companies in the U.S. that would be qualified to install something like this, and that's just the installation," he said. "Plus, whoever owns the network will probably have to put up a performance bond, so you've got financial hurdles, as well."

As such, Stark said it would be a "very unique" situation to have any local providers with the ability to manage such a project. But there will likely be opportunity for local companies to get involved, Stark said. The selected vendor will likely use local subcontractors for much of the work, especially electricians. Plus, there is a possibility that there will be an opportunity for local ISPs to operate on the network as resellers. This was the case with EarthLink — the nation's largest independent ISP — in Philadelphia.

"This could be an outstanding platform for them to become a retailer on someone else's network without having to invest several million dollars," Stark said. "EarthLink wants other people to use its network because by themselves they might have a hard time making it profitable."

At Atomic Object, Karlesky has hopes to participate in the project, he said, but doesn't view it as a profit center. Instead, Atomic Object hopes to use it to further internal goals for community involvement, and also, perhaps, as a feather in its cap.

"Some of the city's goals are to bridge the digital divide and feed community development," he said. "We have the desire and resources to support something like that; why not put something to good use beyond dollars and cents?"

As for FreedomNet, Steensma said the company will maintain a commitment to the community, if not the project.

"We moved downtown so we could be in the Renaissance Zone, to make a statement in terms of our beliefs about reinventing this community and being a part of it," he said. "It's our fundamental belief that 99 percent of the economic development problems exist right here. … We're bringing high-tech jobs to downtown. And regardless of what everyone else does in the marketplace, we will have a significant presence.

"The city won't lose anything if they bring someone else in."

Rachel Lee, a development associate for Bazzani Associates and lead volunteer for the Wealthy Theatre demonstration site, believes that involvement is a necessity for the project's success, but that might not be as vendors or contractors.

It's more important for those that are involved in building the network to have an understanding of how to acclimate residents to its use.

She believed the Wealthy Theatre project was so successful — 14,000 users in 100 days — because of the outreach efforts of ADC, an out-of-state firm.

"They understood the importance of getting word out to the neighbors," she said. "It is important to involve the local community, but it's important for them to understand how to communicate with the neighborhood, too."     

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