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 2: Building Ypsi Wireless

Wireless Ypsi has been an interesting project to work on for the past eight months. When Brian Robb and I started it in January 2008, we thought we might have 5 or 10 business hooked up and the 'regulars' that visit downtown Ypsilanti every week could surf the net. We sort of blew over that goal in the first week. 

Last night, Wireless Ypsi had its 8,400th new user and 3.2 terabytes of data has been transmitted since we started. In the past 24 hours, 454 people signed on to use the system. According to
, Wireless Ypsi is one the top 10 networks in the world. Stunning.

Beyond the users, beyond the technology, there is an important reason why this has been successful and one we are very mindful of when consulting and advising other communities that want to use our model. It is knowing the people in your community 

We could have done the traditional wireless model and pulled in our own Internet connections. We could have negotiated tower and light pole agreements with City Hall. We could have paid engineers thousands of dollars to do electromagnetic site surveys. But that would have taken months, even years, and it would have cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Between Brian and me, we had $1,200 we were willing to throw at this project. We came up with $1,200 as we figured each of us was willing to kick in $50 a month if we could get Internet access in our favorite downtown restaurants and pubs. 

Inventory your community assets 

Typically a wireless system from one of the big companies like Motorola or Tranzeo might cost between $25,000 and $100,000 per square mile. We had $1,200 and two weeks to make something work. 

So why not take advantage of the assets that your community or downtown already has. In our case, a number of bar and restaurants already offered free wireless. Moreover, most every business downtown already has a high speed Internet connection. If we could just tap into those connections, we could get going quickly and not spend a fortune. 

That is where personal connections come in. I had been active in the community since I first came to town in 1999. I was a former DDA chair, ran for mayor and lost, and helped start the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti LDFA which is a major funder for Spark.

If there was a project to work on or plants to be watered I was there. So people knew me. Same can be said about Brian Robb. Brian is a city councilmember, he won, and a tireless promoter for Ypsilanti and especially our Downtown and Depot Town.

So when we walked into a business, we already knew the owner and they knew us. It was easy to get a meeting. The hard part was to get them to let us hook into their Internet connections. But it wasn’t that hard. 

Some owners like Dave Curtis at Pub 13, Brian Brickley at the Tap Room, and Derrick Block at TC’s Speakeasy
all immediately said, "Yes!". Thirty minutes later we were ferreting around basements running Ethernet cable and sticking the radio to a front window with suction cups. 

But some other owners were a bit skeptical. They worried that we would drain their bandwidth. They wanted to know if this was legal and still others asked if it was secure. Well let’s talk about these issues. 


It doesn’t drain bandwidth because we monitor the system and will bounce anyone being unreasonable. We don’t restrict what you can see, but if you are connected for 8 hours and download 10 full length movies from iTunes, you will likely get banned at least for a day or so until we chat about how this is a co-operative free network. We explain that no one is making money here and all we ask is everyone to be reasonable. Most folks get it, apologize and we never have a problem again. 

Moreover, because we have a high concentration of radios and multiple connections to the Internet, at any one point in time, there are likely just one or two people on any one connection. So the bandwidth use is minimal. And we can prove it by showing the customer the actual stats from Meraki. 


Is this legal? Sadly, we had some folks with ties to the Wireless Washtenaw project and the City and County that were telling people what Wireless Ypsi was doing was illegal. It is not illegal. We are not stealing bandwidth from the air or hijacking an unsecured network connection. It took a while for us to first find out this was happening behind the scenes and then dispel the misconception.

For anyone that did not get the memo, "Wireless Ypsi is not illegal."

Good, I hope we can put that to bed finally. 

However, some Internet Service Providers like Comcast Home and AT&T Residential service do not allow sharing of Internet connections. But downtown, there are businesses with business Internet service that cost as much as two or three times more per month and they don’t have the same restrictions. So yes, it is legal. 

We have spoken to several representatives from AT&T of Michigan asking them to reconsider their terms of service limitation for residential customers. Brian and I are convinced that hundreds of people in Ypsilanti would switch from Comcast if AT&T Residential would allow sharing so they could put up a Wireless Ypsi radio. While nothing has happened yet, we are hopeful AT&T will consider this change. 

Other providers like Wow, Speakeasy, TDS Metrocom, Cavalier, and Ypsilanti’s very own
all allow their Internet connections to be shared. 

Wireless Ypsi is not an ISP, we are not competing with other ISP’s. was initially worried that we were going to take business away from them. The opposite is true, we send customers to them. Once they learned that, they thought it was a great idea. 

In eight months we can point to 12 new Internet connections that were specifically ordered by local businesses and residents in support of Wireless Ypsi. There are four more connections that will come on-line just in October. Far from taking business away from the ISP’s, Wireless Ypsi is driving new business to them. 

In fact, in several cases, a business ordered a second Internet connection just to connect to Wireless Ypsi which brings us to the next topic, Security 

Is it Secure? 

It is wireless Internet, it is not secure. I repeat, it is wireless Internet, it is not secure

If you are looking at patient records, reviewing a legal case for a client, processing payroll, or anything else were personal or confidential information is involved, don’t use a free wireless service, it isn’t secure. 

Can you check your Yahoo or Gmail account securely, you bet. Just make sure you use "HTTPS://" and then your provider’s domain name. For example to check your Gmail go to
. And for heavens sake, your email password better be different from your banking password. ‘Nuff said. 

But Steve, what about network security? You are plugging into the businesses Internet connection. They have computers and QuickBooks, credit card processing, and banking. Aren’t you just opening up their network to problems? The answer is "Yes", but it isn’t as bad as you might first think and most of the time the Wireless Ypsi Radio is more secure than the low bucks Linksys wireless router they are already using. 

Remember many of those businesses we first visited already had a free WiFi service and the security was grim. All they did was plug in a Linksys or Netgear wireless router and turn on the network. They had no idea who was connecting or for how long, or how much bandwidth they were using. 

Worse, their own PC’s and printers were connected to the same Wireless network so users could potentially snoop the network and learn passwords and other personal information. Unfortunately, that is the state of affairs in most businesses that are providing free WiFi. 

The Meraki system is more secure. The radio cannot see any of the local traffic. So when a customer connects to the Wireless Ypsi network, all they can see is the Internet, they can’t see the local computers and they can’t see other wireless users. Already this is more secure than 80% of most WiFi hotspots. So it is reasonably safe to plug a Meraki radio directly into your existing network and you will not be exposing the rest of the network to the community. 

However for better security, we recommend firewalls and additional routers to isolate traffic between the business and the free WiFi. 

For two businesses in Ypsilanti, they took the best approach. They have an entirely separate Internet connection from a different provider for Wireless Ypsi. We then helped them secure their internal network and locked down the configuration and in one case even turned off the internal WiFi for additional security. 

For those businesses that were already offering free WiFi, the Meraki system is actually better and more secure than the system they already had in place. 

Closing the Deal 

So after we spent 20 or 30 minutes explaining this to folks, all but one business said, sure plug in. We haven’t given quite given on up on that one last business, we keep telling the owner his current WiFi is wide open and anyone can see his QuickBooks PC and even print to his printer. Maybe we can make him a convert in the next month. 

To grow the network, it is all about the people in the community and it is about relationship building. I know, this sounds like a sales seminar, but it is true. You are selling a service and you need the trust and support from the local community to make it a success. 

I would have a harder time going into Dearborn or Trenton and asking those same businesses would you let me connect to your network. Yeah, right. I would be tossed out on my ear. 

To successfully deploy a free wireless network in a new community, you are going to need local knowledge. You need an advocate that has local ties to the community and can make the connections and help sell the service. 

A second important aspect of building support is for people to invest in your network. I am not talking about Angel investing or stockholders, I am talking about getting the local business owner to feel they have a stake in your success. 

In Ypsilanti every person and every business is a part owner in the network. We do that by having them pay for the radio that goes into the window. Today the radios cost $150 for the indoor units. We bought a bunch of them early on when the price was lower so we sell them for just $50. 

And we reward them by providing a link and graphic on our website
and for those that also provide bandwidth, they get banner advertising on the Wireless Ypsi service.

But wait, I am getting ahead of myself. 

Tomorrow, how you can setup your own free Wireless Internet service in your community and how to pay for the thing. 

Questions or ideas, email me at