Municipal Wireless Projects Marking Time

October 15, 2007
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The city of Grand Rapids and Ottawa County are going to fall short of their respective goals to deploy wireless Internet service within their borders in 2007. Whether either project will emerge in the coming year remains to be seen.

Ottawa County had the rug pulled from beneath its plans earlier this year when Grand Rapids-based Broadbreeze Communications was acquired by Clearwire Inc., the vendor for the Grand Rapids project.

“We learned some lessons from that experience,” said Mark Knudsen, director of the Ottawa County Planning and Grants Department. “We’re going in a different direction this time.”

Frustrated by the failure of incumbent telecommunications companies to provide broadband Internet service to its rural residents, Ottawa County officials began an initiative to establish county-wide service through a public-private partnership similar to the city-wide Wi-Fi Internet deployment in Grand Haven.

At no expense to the taxpayer, Broadbreeze Communications, a subsidiary of local accounting firm Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter PC, intended to deploy high-speed, fully mobile Internet service to all 24 Ottawa County municipalities by the end of this year. In 2006, it launched a highly successful pilot program in Jamestown Township using its cellular-based 3G technology.

Seeking to expand its portfolio of the licensed broadband spectrum needed to broadcast 3G or Clearwire’s WiMAX technology, Washington-based Clearwire Inc. acquired Broadbreeze in April. It has opted not to fulfill the local firm’s commitments in Ottawa County.

“We’re working with a couple of different companies and hoping to have an announcement within the next 30 days at the latest,” Knudsen said. “Rather than a small local firm, we’re working with some big national companies, and that should provide much greater opportunity for private investment than there was with the local companies.”

A year ago next month, the city of Grand Rapids chose Clearwire as the vendor for its wireless Internet initiative, launched by Mayor George Heartwell in 2005 as a means to promote mobile computing, improve city services and provide broadband Internet access to low-income residents.

“Clearwire would like to be very silent about their timeline, but I can say our original estimate was a little aggressive,” said Grand Rapids Wireless Broadband Project Manager Sally Wesorick. “The goal to be finished by the end of the year was the city’s expectation, not Clearwire’s.”

From a statement prepared in cooperation with Clearwire, Wesorick explained that new technology and the business decisions of the publicly traded Clearwire can have widespread market implications. The city continues to work closely with Clearwire and is assured of the company’s commitment to “proceed at all commercially feasible speed to provide wireless broadband service within the entire 45 square miles of the city limits.”

The business decisions the Clearwire statement indicated were its announcement this summer to form a strategic alliance with Sprint Nextel, the only other major player in the WiMAX field, to create a national network and drive the adoption of the technology. Sprint Nextel, which is already marketing a high-priced mobile broadband Internet service that operates on its cellular network, is reportedly having reservations about creating its own disruptive technology. Share prices for both companies plummeted this month when rumors emerged of the possible replacement of Sprint CEO Gary Forsee and a potential scuttling of the WiMAX initiative. If it comes to fruition, the joint Sprint-Clearwire network is expected to reach 100 million people by the end of 2008.

WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is a cellular-like technology capable of broadcasting relatively large bandwidth over a considerable distance without the need of line-of-sight connections. It is not currently possible to access a network directly from a computer without a router, but trials are currently underway on the technology to do so. WiMAX is the technology Lansing firm Arialink Broadband used to deploy county-wide service in Muskegon County as part of the state’s Digital Divide Investment project.

Regardless of the outcome of the national network, Clearwire is still committed to Grand Rapids, Wesorick assured. She sat on a panel on the subject with Clearwire’s John Storch at WiMAX World in Chicago earlier this month. “I don’t think they would have done that if they had any intention of backing out,” she said.

Construction of the Clearwire network is under way in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids office of Faulk & Foster Real Estate, a turnkey vendor specializing in acquisition, leasing and construction management of wireless deployments, has been working on the deployment since January.

“This is our first WiMAX,” said Lee Burlison, vice president of Faulk & Foster in Grand Rapids. “We’ve done deployments with Clearwire before, but those have all been Wi-Fi Expedius, which was the four-runner to WiMAX. It’s one of the first in the country, and that will be a nice selling point for the city.”

No price has been projected for the Clearwire service, although there will be a special $9.95 “Digital Divide” tier available for city residents meeting yet-to-be-determined income standards.

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