Wireless Connections Keep State ‘Competitive’

February 17, 2008
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LANSING — Staring into the abyss of his home computer screen, waiting for files to download at mind-numbingly slow speeds, Ray Berg picked up his laptop and drove his truck to the nearest high-speed wireless Internet hot spot.

Hot spots were few and far between in Washtenaw County's Freedom Township, a rural area of historic farmhouses, soybeans, cattle and Berg's dial-up misery. Berg found the connection he needed at the Manchester library. There, he downloaded the large files his engineering and custom home-building business required — all the while steaming about his Internet fate.

"There was no cable, no DSL, just dial-up, made even slower by the old phone lines out here," Berg said. "High- speed Internet providers just told me, 'We're not coming to your area.’"

Berg's frustration is familiar to many rural dwellers who twiddle their thumbs while they wait for dial-up Internet because high-speed access skipped by them. It's a trend several counties hope to reverse by partnering with Internet providers to offer no-cost and low-cost high-speed wireless Internet access to their entire constituency.

"Counties are saying that it's great to have broadband coverage in their county and have it accessible to anyone who wants to use it," said Ben Bodkin, legislative coordinator for the Michigan Association of Counties.

Private companies bid on these county projects. In exchange for providing free dial-up speeds, faster speeds for a low fee and shouldering the cost of the project, the providers can mount their network equipment on public buildings, Bodkin said.

Counties across the state, like Macomb and Genesee, interested in providing high-speed wireless are following the lead of three pioneering counties: Oakland, Ottawa and Berg's Washtenaw County. Washtenaw recognized that many rural residents, like Berg, had limited Internet options.

"We wanted to give them access to high-speed wireless, eliminate the digital divide and improve mobile computing," James McFarlane, Washtenaw County project manager, said.

To do so, his county partnered with Ann Arbor-based 20/20 Communications to bring all residents free, basic access and higher speeds for $35 to $65 a month. Thirty of Washtenaw County's 720 square miles now have wireless access — including Berg's home in Freedom Township. 20/20 Communications estimates the rest of the $9 million Wireless Washtenaw project should be completed in a year, McFarlane said.

In nearby Oakland County, a similar project is underway. Wireless Oakland intends to cover all of its 910 square miles with coverage, give computer training to its low-income residents, and encourage local governments to use technology more effectively, said Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive. Oakland's partner, MichTel Communications of Pontiac, has completed 19 square miles and seven communities are included in the project: Troy, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pontiac and Wixom. While 19,000 residents enjoy their new high-speed Internet, progress on the $75 million project is currently delayed as MichTel finalizes the rest of its funding, Bertolini said.

In West Michigan, Ottawa County officials have reached a partnership with a national provider that will bring high-speed wireless to 95 percent of the county within six months, Mark Knudsen, the county director of planning and grants, said. Knudsen declined to name the company, citing contract negotiations.

"We found that local units of government had dial-up, rural residents had the same predicament, and industrial parks were limited as well, so wireless came to the surface as a solution," Knudsen said.

Even competing private providers say they are excited about the potential of these programs.

"We like the concept, because the more Internet available, the more competitive Michigan will be," said Dan Horn, president of ISG, a technology company in Holland. "It will do nothing but help Michigan."

It might seem that ISG, a local company whose clients include area businesses like DeVos Place and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, should be worried about competition from county-sponsored programs.

Not so, Horn said. "There's so much competition already, one more won't make a difference."

As for Ray Berg, it's all smooth surfing now — thanks to a wireless signal beamed to his home office from atop the water tower in Manchester. "It's just marvelous. My productivity is way up and my stress is way down," he said. 

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