GR To Be Wi-Fi Proving Ground

April 29, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The city of Grand Rapids is about to become a proving ground for the nation’s Wi-Fi technologies, as some of the country’s most renowned manufacturers of wireless broadband products have signed on as vendors for the demonstration project of Mayor George Heartwell’s wireless broadband economic development initiative.

Ten vendors have been chosen to set up separate demonstration networks at locations across the city and in Kentwood and Walker. Utilizing partnerships with businesses, schools, health care, neighborhoods, nonprofits and community groups, each network will be a quarter square mile in size and provide free wireless broadband Internet access for an eight-week demonstration period.

In partnership with the city, SBC will provide the bandwidth at no charge to the public or project participants.

Each network will operate using the wireless Internet 802.11 protocol, commonly called Wi-Fi, which can be accessed from any Wi-Fi-equipped personal computer. While most often used by laptops, the networks — referred to as hotspots, wireless local area networks (WLANs) or wireless canopies — are also accessible to desktop computers with an antenna accessory.

The technology for home and office use has become relatively standardized, but there are several different products vying for space in the large-scale deployment market. This is the first time that all of the leading technologies will be available for public display in a municipal setting in the same area.

“The manufacturers themselves will be bringing clients in; the demonstration networks themselves may be an economic development tool for Grand Rapids,” said Sally Wesorick, project manager. “Our demonstration projects will provide an opportunity not only for the city of Grand Rapids to examine the technology but other cities and counties, as well.”

Represented in the first phase of sites is a project at City Hall/Calder Plaza by the $9 billion Nortel Networks. Northrop Grumman and Tropos will install a similar project at the Kent County Health Department campus at

700 Fuller Ave.
NE. Tropos is the vendor for the municipal Wi-Fi project under construction in Philadelphia

Sprint and Cisco/Airspace will build their own network at the Van Andel Research Institute.

The lone local company and only Internet Service Provider in the networks launching June 1 is FreedomNet Solutions.

FreedonNet is partnered with the Grand Rapids Police Department building and already has a quarter-mile network deployed from its PeoplesBuilding headquarters. Since last year, FreedomNet has operated a paid service through that network and other sites dotted across the region, including 15 Speedway gas stations. It has now opened the downtown portion of the project to the public.

“It’s our hometown. We would obviously like to be the provider of service throughout the city,” said FreedomNet’s Ken Steensma. “There are a lot of potential equipment providers and wireless companies that would like to do stuff in this market. Our role is to showcase our strengths and then let the people in the city decide.”

Of the six companies in the second wave of demonstrations, which will launch in July outside of the downtown area, there are four manufacturers and two ISPs.

The $780 million ADC will set up at the CommunityMediaCenter’s Wealthy Theatre. Defacto Wireless Distribution, the first Wi-Fi provider to be featured in the Wall Street Journal, will build a network at the Seymour Branch Library at

2350 Eastern Ave. SE

Vivato will bring the technology it used in its Spokane, Wash., development to an undetermined site in Kentwood. Proxim, the provider for Ottawa Wireless’ network in Grand Haven and Rio Rancho, N.M., will set up at WalkerCity Hall

Lansing-based ISP Arialink Broadband will launch a site at CrestonHigh School and Elk Rapids-based M.E. Global Net will launch at the Leonard/Covell Fire Station.

M.E. Global Net became interested in the project because of its potential connection to its work developing a wireless network for Michigan’s emergency responders. It is one of the only broadband Internet providers in northern Michigan

Grand Rapids is another opportunity for us to showcase our understanding of the technology and to bring another option in telecommunications to the people of Michigan,” said Trina Maylone, office manager.

Last week, the company’s technicians were working to build a pipeline from Oscoda to Alpena.

Grand Rapids is the border between northern and lower Michigan,” Maylone said. “We’d like to bring our products into that market and expand our network in the state.”

Heartwell said he is excited the project attracted so many vendors and partners.

“This technology will provide an economic development tool to attract and retain business, reduce the digital divide with affordable high-speed broadband service, improve municipal service delivery to residents, reduce the cost of government, and create a seamless wireless infrastructure to attract and retain young professionals,” he said.

Other partners include the state of Michigan; Washtenaw, Kent and Ottawa counties; and Wyoming, East Grand Rapids, Rockford and Grandville.

“We want to see if it really works,” Wesorick said. “We want to see if we can get it to businesses and residents inside and outside, and how interested in the service are businesses and the public.”

Participation in the proof-of-concept program will not earn vendors points in this fall’s RFP process for citywide deployment, Wesorick said.

“We’re not sure what the final model will be, but we do know it will be some form of public-private partnership,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt ISPs at all as far as the future build-out or their future ability to offer the service. Right now we’re just testing the technology and equipment.

“The final build-out will provide lots of opportunities for ISPs, manufacturers and installers.”    

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