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 3: Ypsi Wireless spreads the gospel

Wireless Ypsi is a free wireless Internet service that covers all of the downtown and Depot Town in Ypsilanti and is branching out to other business districts and neighborhoods in and around Ypsilanti. 

In my first two posts I described Wireless Ypsi and how we went about deploying Wireless Ypsi from concept to usable network in two weeks.  

By the second month, my business partner Brian Robb and I had covered much of the 10 block downtown district. By month three we covered Depot Town. Over the last five months we have grown the network to include apartment complexes, retirement homes, and a community center. Since I started this blog two days ago, 244 new users signed on for the very first time. Since yesterday, 439 people have used the network. 

Hopefully we have shown that Wireless Ypsi and the Meraki mesh radios is a viable free community based wireless Internet Service that has a very low cost of entry, scales well, is reliable and fast, and can be quickly deployed. By the time you read this post, the world famous Bomber Restaurant on Michigan Avenue will be the newest node on Wireless Ypsi. 

So how to do you get a Wireless network going in your neck of the woods. 

Remember our earlier tips. Don’t throw in the kitchen sink with every possible use. Keep the goals of the project simple. The goal should be a usable wireless service to surf the Internet and check email. 

Define the area you want to cover. It should be small to begin with and grow with use. Maybe an apartment building, a one or two block area downtown, a business or neighborhood park or common meeting area. 

Build the network where you have a lot of people. It could be your downtown with lots of lunch traffic and offices, the fairgrounds or community center, or a river or lakeside park where people gather for festivals and weekends. 

Don’t promote the network, at least not at first. Get it running and seed a couple of the blogs or business groups and encourage people to try it out. Let them know this is a special project and you are just inviting a few special folks to try it. Encourage feedback and make it easy to get a hold of you. 

Not every network will follow the Wireless Ypsi model. Be flexible and adapt the network to what works best for you. 

Here is how three communities got Wireless Internet going and how we got them started. 

The Congressman calls 

Ok, the Congressman didn’t really call, but a staffer, Jeff Donofrio from John Dingell’s office did call us in March and said, "The Downriver Conference wants to look at doing wireless Internet, why don’t you come speak to them about Wireless Ypsi."

So we go to a working session in late March that is getting ready for the big conference with 300+ attendees in May. They want to talk about Wireless. I said that Wireless Oakland/Washtenaw was a failed model and blasted other communities including San Francisco and Philadelphia for screwing up their networks.  

OK, I should have asked first who else they talked to. Wireless Oakland had visited the same group a couple of months earlier. Oops. Well, I have never been bashful about sharing my opinion.  

I laid out my idea on how other communities can make Wireless Internet work. After an hour, someone asked if I would come back for another meeting. "Uh, no." I was here for free, just talking about Wireless, I didn’t want to come to more meetings. Besides, I said, "No one ever deployed a wireless network in a meeting."

So then they asked me to work up a cost proposal. "Uh, no again." This is simple. The indoor radios are $50 and the outdoor are $100. The price has since then gone up, the indoor is $149 and the outdoor is $199.  

If you want to do a typical downtown block with just indoor radios, figure 5 per block using a zig-zag pattern from one business to the next. Outdoor deployments, figure one to two outdoor radios per block. That is it, do the math, there is your cost proposal.

o one was very happy with this. For one, several communities already had $100,000 plus quotes, what I was proposing seemed impossible. 

So I made this offer. I will come back for one more meeting but you have to do something first.  

Step 1. Raise $1,000 to buy radios. I don’t care how you do that. Get it from your DDA, Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, or write a check, but before we meet in April you have to have a firm commitment for radios and have placed the order for 4 outdoors and 2 indoors or 10 indoor radios. Your choice. 

(Note: I changed the numbers to work with today’s pricing from Meraki, in March I said they need to raise $500.) 

Step 2. Order or secure a high speed Internet connection you can share. Again you may be able to use the existing connection at your DDA or Chamber office. A local business like a coffee shop or bar may let you share their connection. Make sure you get a connection from an ISP that allows sharing. It didn’t have to be working connection, not yet, but it had to be ordered.

Do that, and I will come back in three weeks for one more meeting and I will help you get the network up and running. Then in May, instead of talking about Wireless Ypsi, you guys will talk about your own Wireless networks at the Downriver Annual Conference 

My plan was in May at the big Downriver conference, these communities will talk about Wireless Internet in their own communities. Not a proposal, not a plan. A real, honest to goodness, working wireless network in their downtown, built start to finish in 6 weeks. 

Surprising to me, four communities right there in March said they would commit to our two step plan. When we got back together in three weeks, three of the communities had actually followed through with Steps 1 and 2. They were the Cities of Dearborn and Trenton. Lincoln Park was not that far behind. 

Remember, one of the other steps that I said in an earlier post was importance of local knowledge and trust. It wasn’t Steve Pierce that was installing this network. It was people closely tied to the community that were doing the work. They could get things done and they knew who to talk to. This was critical to get a system up quickly. 

Also there was a ringer. Jeff Donofrio from Congressman Dingell’s office played a critical role. He knew every person from these communities and behind the scenes he helped persuade them to take a chance on the Wireless Ypsi model.  

Frankly, the model sounds nuts so without a giant leap of faith the idea of free Wireless system installed in a downtown in 6 weeks, well it is madness. It can’t possibly work. 

Here is a guy from Ypsi telling you that you can build a working free wireless Internet system for $1,000 and a $50 a month Internet connection when the experts tell you it will cost $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 or more and you read the headlines in the tech journals of community after community that failed to ever get a working network. 

This guy from Ypsilanti must be a nut.  

I am a nut, but that aside, they trusted Jeff to give me a chance to make it work. Truth is, they did all the real work, I just had the confidence that it would actually work. Plus, we had our experience of two months with our own network. I can’t write this with a straight face. Two months, and look, we are helping three other communities to start their own wireless network. But we were and people were following our lead. 

Each community took a little bit different approach, but each was able to make it work and their networks are continuing to grow every day. Here are two of those stories. 

West Dearborn Michigan goes wireless 

The project was headed up by Dearborn CIO, Doug Feldkamp. Doug knows networking and he know wireless. Dearborn has a number of wireless connections that they beam around the city for different offices and facilities. So he caught on very quickly how this could work. 

Dearborn was able to get commitment from several businesses for their Internet connections to start. 

Doug then ordered 10 indoor Meraki radios. He would then visit a local business, order lunch and then ask if he could install a radio in the window so the business could have free WiFi for their customers. After a couple of weeks he had covered a city block. 

Doug’s tech geeks in the office wanted to setup the network, but he wouldn’t let them. He didn’t want to distract them from the priority projects they were working on and besides it gave him something to do on his lunch break. 

Doug said by doing it on lunch hours he was able to meet business owners and it presented a positive image to the business community that Dearborn was working on a project that would benefit the downtown businesses. Doug then ordered two dedicated connections to feed bandwidth into the system. He also secured $5,000 from the DDA to pay for the bandwidth and buy more radios. 

Since April, Open Dearborn has had over 4,500 people use their network and they have about 35 radios covering several blocks of their Western DDA Business District.  

Doug says they are working on a similar project for their Eastside business district and has already secured financial commitment from the Eastside Dearborn DDA as well. 

City of Trenton weathers a storm 

The City of Trenton took a slightly different approach. Trenton ordered 11 outdoor radios and two additional indoor radios to use as test radios and to learn how to use the system. They also ordered a high speed connection from a local ISP that is dedicated to the free network. 

Trenton DPW installed the radios on City owned light poles in the downtown. At first, Trenton had a number of problems with the network that didn’t make sense. One was that it never seemed to work during the day, but then in the evening, when I had time to look at the network, it worked great. 

Thankfully, someone far smarter than me in the Trenton DPW department said, "Hey you know, those light poles have photo cells, is that going to be a problem?"  

That would explain why the network only worked when the lights came on. 

A quick revisit by DPW to rewire the outlets solved the problem. Trenton also had a channel interference problem. It took a couple of days, but we found a wireless channel that seemed to work and we were off to the races. 

During the big Downriver conference in May, Trenton City manager Robert Cady said this about their wireless network: "Trenton has not had a lot of positive things to talk about recently. With GM closings and the economy things, are tough. But here comes this guy from Ypsilanti and he says we can get wireless Internet in our downtown for less than $2,000. For that price, I am willing to try anything. Well, all I can say is, it works." 

If you have ever met Bob Cady, you know this to be true; he doesn’t get too excited about anything. Bob simply saying "it works" was high praise. 

Several weeks after the conference, Trenton was hit be a devastating summer storm. Power was out in much of the city for three and more days. But downtown Trenton had power and their Wireless Network was working.  

We read on several blogs how Trenton residents had discovered the free downtown network and took their laptops downtown and were able to get on-line to check email and stay in touch with family and co-workers. 

Shortly after the conference, the City of Lincoln Park came on-line as the third wireless project downriver, though we haven’t seen that network in action. We have also learned that community volunteers in Taylor are deploying a Meraki network using the same Wireless Ypsi model. 

Build your own Community Wireless Internet Service 

I touched on ways to get the funding in your own community and showed you a couple of different approaches. Wireless Ypsi got businesses and residents to contribute $50 or $100 to buy a radio and extend the network. Dearborn seeded the money form city hall and then got the money from the DDA and Chamber to build out the network. Trenton paid for the system out of the general fund. 

There is a forth model of either using an ad-supported network or monthly subscription revenue. The third largest Meraki network in the world is in Hawaii and is entirely subscription based. While beyond the scope of this series, Meraki does support both models. 

Wireless Ypsi is looking at ad-supported revenue to help expand the network and we are hoping we can get some support from the two DDA’s in Ypsilanti and City Hall to put up radios in our parks and community centers. Surprisingly, City Hall still won’t let us put up a radio at City Hall. But we are working on it. (Hint, hint) 

During the Downriver conference representatives from Wayne County were at the conference and were especially interested in the Wireless Project. The next week they called me and asked all sorts of questions. They then said they wanted to hire us to help consult with the IT staff on a wireless project. Hey cool, a paid gig. 

So I told them what to order and laid out the strategy to deploy the network at one of their lakefront parks. Using Microsoft Live maps, they have the best aerial views; we flew over the park identifying high spots, buildings, and light poles to install the radios.  

Three weeks later I get the call from Wayne County. Oh boy, I thought, time to do some billable work. 

On the other end of the line was a quizzical IT geek who said, "Yesterday, Facilities installed the radios on the poles. I then configured the Internet connection and connected the radios and it worked. What am I missing?" 

I asked, were you able to surf the Internet? Yes, she replied.  

Damn, so much for a consulting gig.  

Can anyone deploy one of these networks?  

No, it takes some skill and knowledge about wireless networking and especially troubleshooting and effective antenna placement. But as I said before, a competent network geek with good problems solving skills can get the first couple of nodes going in about an hour. 

Ed Velmetti commented in an earlier post, "I think people underestimate how much the Meraki technology is a game changer for this…" I agree with Ed to a point. Just as important as the technology are the people installing the system and critical to the success is local knowledge and connections to get things moving. 

You have to have local knowledge of the business owners, city and county governments, DDA, Chamber, and much more. That doesn’t mean that Brian and I couldn’t go in cold to a new community and get a network working. We believe we can. 

But to be truly successful and to deploy in weeks rather than months or years, you have to have the contacts inside the community to pull it off.  

While it is fun to talk about the technology, it was really the forward thinking business owners in Downtown Ypsilanti that saw the benefit of a free wireless network as a way attract people to live, work and play in our community. 

While Brian and I may be the face to Wireless Ypsi, it is the 125 business owners and residents that each bought a radio and in a sense became investors, partners in Wireless Ypsilanti that all contributed to making Wireless Ypsi successful. 

I would love to blog about the many other cool things we are doing in Ypsilanti, especially in our two downtown districts. Like video casting the 2009 Elvis Fest live from Riverside Park using Wireless Ypsi. Or
reporting on our local government with live broadcasting of town hall meetings and debates using Wireless Ypsi.

We'll have to see what time allows. Thanks for stopping by and visiting.

If you are ever in Ypsilanti, make sure you call or email me and we can get a cup of coffee from one of our great local coffee shops or a brew from one of our local taverns and you can check out Wireless Ypsi for yourself. First round is on me. 

Feel free to email me directly with questions or comments at