Grand Rapids attempts to close local digital divide

August 6, 2010
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Last Tuesday would have been a very good day for Dirk Koning. That was the day Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and Jake Garechana of Clearwire Corp. unveiled the new citywide 4G wireless broadband system, the first of its kind in Michigan.

Koning, who founded the Community Media Center in 1981 and directed the nonprofit organization until his untimely death in 2005, embraced a personal mission of closing the “digital divide” so every resident had access to the Internet.

Koning, a recognized technology expert and global consultant, lent his talents and expertise to the wireless effort Heartwell initiated in 2004, first through the Downtown Development Authority and then through the city commission.

“It’s like the air we breathe. It’s like oxygen,” said Heartwell of how important Koning thought it was to make access available to everyone.

Now, steps are being taken to help make Koning’s wish come true.

Garechana, general manager of CLEAR Grand Rapids, said his firm is donating 20 netbook computers, loaded with the 4G/3G modems that provide access to the system, to the Community Media Center for distribution. “We promise to put them into excellent use in our community,” said Laurie Cirivello, CMC executive director.

Garechana also said that CLEAR Grand Rapids would offer an estimated 10,000 low-income residents access to the system for a reduced monthly rate of $9.95. “We’re working out those details right now,” he said.

Sally Wesorick, the city’s wireless project manager, said the CMC would begin processing the applications for the lower rate in October, and allocations would be made on a first-come, first-served basis. Although the guidelines haven’t been established yet, Wesorick said a family that qualifies for the free school lunch program would also likely qualify for the reduced rate.

According to Clear Grand Rapids, the wireless network will cover all 45 square miles of Grand Rapids and be available to 214,000 people. The rate for home access starts at $30 a month and $40 a month for the mobile service, which is the key element of the 4G, or 4th Generation, system. Subscribers will have 4G service within the prime coverage area and 3G when they leave the area. Garechana said 4G is four times faster than 3G.

“Think Wi-Fi. Think of that everywhere in Grand Rapids. We’re blanketing the city. We’re simply plug-in and play,” said Garechana. “What we are bringing to Grand Rapids is a network of networks.”

City Manager Greg Sundstrom said the system’s mobility will reduce the city’s operating cost, increase employee efficiency and improve customer service. He said starting next month city building inspectors will be able to do their work in the field and not have to return to the office to file their findings.

He also pointed out that city dispatchers will be able to observe a scene that police have been called to and order back-ups from their desks, and firefighters will be able to download building schematics on their way to a blaze. Sundstrom said the city has only scratched the surface on what it can do with the 4G system; he expects new applications will regularly surface in the coming months.

“Anyone who is in the field will be able to take advantage of this technology,” said Sundstrom. “I’m sure we can find more ways to increase our productivity and improve customer service through this system.”

Heartwell said the wireless system will be an economic development tool for the city’s entrepreneurs and others, like real estate agents and developers. He also said it will make the city more sustainable. “Say goodbye to hunting for a wireless Wi-Fi hotspot in Grand Rapids. We’re going green, clearly green,” he said.

Sundstrom admitted that the city took a risk in December 2006 when it chose Clearwire as the company to build, own and operate a Wi-MAX system; back then the technology hadn’t been perfected and Wi-Fi was the system of choice for most municipalities.

Sundstrom said the system has been “cost neutral” for the city, as CLEAR Grand Rapids is leasing tower space from the city and has reimbursed the city for its expenses in the building process. He also said the 4G hotspots will be announced over the next few weeks and months and that he expects CLEAR Grand Rapids will make a profit on the system. “We are on the cutting edge of this technology,” he said. “We want to close the digital divide.”

Highlights of the city’s new 4G broadband system

  • CLEAR Grand Rapids covers about 105 square miles; service extends as far north as 7 Mile Road, south to M-6, east to I-96, and west to M-11.

  • CLEAR service averages mobile download speeds of 3 to 6 mbps, with bursts over 10 mbps.

  • CLEAR does not cap data usage and offers unlimited 4G data use.

  • Outside the CLEAR 4G service area, a dual-mode modem keeps subscribers connected through Sprint’s 3G data network.

  • Clearwire allows subscribers to connect to the 4G system through a modem, a mobile device, or a 4G-embedded laptop or notebook.

  • The CLEAR 4G+ Mobile USB costs $114.99 or can be leased for $5.99 per month. The CLEAR Home Modem costs $84.99 or can be leased for $4.99 per month. There are 35 laptops and notebooks on the market that come 4G ready.

  • CLEAR 4G coverage in the home starts at $30 per month. The mobile plan starts at $40 per month. A bundled plan starts at $55 per month. For more information go to www.clear.com/michigan.

Source: City of Grand Rapids, August 2010

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