Blog: Steve Pierce

Ypsilanti resident Steve Pierce was launching Internet service companies before anyone ever heard the word website. In January, he and his partner launched Wireless Ypsi, one of the most successful free wireless services in the state. Since then they've helped several Michigan communities set up similar networks. Steve will share the secret of bringing free wireless to the masses.

Steve Pierce - Post 1: Why Do Most Free Wireless Efforts Fail?

Why is Wireless Ypsi working and so many other community wireless efforts failing? I am asked this question on an almost daily basis.

Is it because we are smarter than everyone else? No.

Did we learn from past failures? Yes, partly.

Was there a fundamental technology change in the business? Yes, definitely. More on that later.

Is it because the business' and residents have a sense of ownership? We believe so.

However, the real reason why Wireless Ypsi is successful is we didn't care about making a profit. If you don't care about making any money, it is much easier to create a successful wireless Internet Service.

Wireless Ypsi is a demonstration project to prove the technology and to show other communities use how they can deploy a wireless network that actually works and can be deployed today.

Today Wireless Ypsi has had over 8,300 different users since startup. We don't double count users. If you use the network today and then come back next week, we only count you once. We average from 400 to 500 users per day. We have 125 nodes with 33 separate connections to the Internet.


Having been in the Wireless business since 1999 and managed a successful wireless ISP in Chelsea for nearly four years I know how difficult it is to set up and more importantly keep a wireless mesh network going.

A mesh network is where each radio talks to every other radio it can see. For it to be a true mesh, the network must be able to have one or more radios removed from the system and the rest of the radios automatically reconfigure themselves to re-route traffics. You improve reliability by increasing the number of radios.

A mesh network is not the same as hooking up three wireless routers you got from Wally World and connecting them via WDS or bridge mode. In this case, if one node fails, the network stops functioning. While there is a mesh standard coming from the IEEE, it isn't here and even after adoption, it will be an additional year or two before manufacturers begin making mesh radios. Today most mesh solutions are proprietary.

Wireless Ypsi started in Ypsilanti in January 2008 when Brian Robb and I bemoaned the fact that one of our favorite restaurants didn't have Internet service. I said that I had 10 Meraki radios that I never setup. Maybe he could get them to work. I had received the radios as an early Beta tester in March 2007 but never did anything with them.

I have done hundreds of wireless networks; I figured I wouldn't see Brian for weeks. Brian called the next day and said they work! Sure enough, he had a working mesh network.

Learning from Past Failures

Southeast Michigan had one of the first wireless high speed networks. Called Ricochet, it covered from Detroit to Royal Oak and all along I-94 from Detroit to Ypsilanti. Sorry Ann Arbor, Ricochet never worked there. It cost $90 a month and you got 128KB service. Sadly they folded in August 2001. Ricochet spent $500 million to cover 17 metropolitan areas in the U.S.

In Detroit, they had 384 customers. That is not a typo. At $90 a month it would take 89 years to payback the investment here in Michigan. The problem with Ricochet was that they were competing with ISDN, DSL and cable --all faster technologies at a much lower cost.

Ricochet could have been successful if they had deployed their networks in communities that had no other service but dial-up. But competing against wired services, they could never be cost competitive.

They should have focused on tourist destinations like Aspen, Lake Tahoe, Traverse City, or Mackinac Island. Business would gladly sign up for the service and tourists and vacation home owners would also gladly pay $75 to $90 a month.

Then in 2003, Washtenaw and Oakland Counties as well as many cities across the county announced grandiose plans for Community Wireless Internet. And with few exceptions, they all failed.

They failed because they tried to be all things to all people. It many ways it was like a Swiss Army knife. These communities threw in every possible wireless use hoping to get these diverse constituents to kick in funds.

Police and Fire want Wireless for Secure Mobile Access. Add to the RFQ. Water departments wanted wireless for meter reading. Add it to the RFQ. Building Departments wanted it for plan review. Housing Commissions wanted access for low income housing. Add it to the RFQ. City Hall wants Voice over IP to replace cell phones. Add it to the RFQ.

With so many requirements, the costs grew exponentially and so did the complexity. So when the first networks were deployed, they didn't work.

Wireless Ypsi had one goal. Provide reliable wireless Internet service. No meter reading, no private secured network. No sharing computers or printers. Most importantly it wasn't intended to be your primary Internet service. If it worked, great, if not, oh well. We constantly remind people, the network is free, and it is worth what you paid for it.

If you need high speed Internet service for your business or a full time connection for school, Wireless Ypsi is not for you. But if you want to check your email, chat with a friend, or search the Web, Wireless Ypsi is perfect.

At Wireless Ypsi, we under promised and over delivered.

New technology changes the game

The Meraki mesh radios work without a lot of hassles inherent in previous mesh technologies. It isn't plug and play, but it is very close. Any competent networking geek with decent problem solving skills can get a Meraki mesh network up and running in an hour.

The system is fully managed via web control panel and you can throttle the bandwidth delivered to each user. This keeps bandwidth hogs from abusing the system and then, if you still have a bandwidth hog, you can block them from accessing the network.

Meraki has a fundamentally changed the way mesh networks are designed and deployed. For one the nodes are cheap. The indoor radio is $150 and the outdoor is $200. By comparison, just one year ago we were purchasing outdoor radios using similar technology that cost $1,500 each.

Wireless Ypsi is possible because the cost of deployment has dramatically dropped and Meraki has developed a system that actually works.

In San Franciso, Meraki has deployed a free wireless service that today has over 150,000 users. Meraki uses the San Francisco network to demonstrate how a large scale community WiFi network works and as a laboratory to test new products and features.

Tomorrow, I will talk about the need to build a sense of community ownership and how to finance a wireless community network.

Feel free to email me directly with questions or comments at