It seems that most people have the same attitude about wireless web access that they do about Internet search engines –-they expect it to be free.
Not an easy business model to work with. Recent wireless Internet (aka Wi-Fi) enterprises like Wireless Washtenaw just don't have the same drive that community-based initiatives like Wireless Ypsi do.
Wireless Washtenaw (which offers slower speeds of Wi-Fi for free and higher speeds for a price) recently increased its coverage area to the southwest side of the county, adding four rural townships as well as limited (pilot phase) sections of Ann Arbor, Saline and Manchester. However, 20/20 Communications, which is heading up the initiative, has pushed back its overall goal of achieving coverage for the entire county to late this fall, a year later than expected.
Progress yes, but it doesn't have nearly the momentum Wireless Ypsi has achieved. The initiative, which is run more like a non-profit than a business, blankets all of downtown Ypsilanti with Wi-Fi, is expanding to Depot Town this month and is helping similar initiatives start in other Washtenaw County city centers.
"It's a community network," says Steve Pierce, one of the co-founders of Wireless Ypsi. "Part of the message for Brian (Robb, the other co-founder) and me is to evangelize the technology. This is good for downtown and Ypsi."
The Wireless Ypsi folks have found a way that makes it look easy to set-up free, high-speed Wi-Fi while so many other higher profile initiatives have floundered. Efforts to set up Wi-Fi businesses in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia have ground to a halt or are at best struggling.
"They got a lot of press when they got started for their grandiose plans," says Edward Tracy, associate vice president for Information Technology at the University of Detroit Mercy. "And there has been a lot of let down."
From a business standpoint, yes, but high-speed Wi-Fi is still the mode of choice to surf the Net for many. And so the need for access remains.
Ypsilanti's Wi-Fi epiphany began late last year when Pierce and Robb decided they wanted to surf the web while eating at one of their favorite downtown restaurants. After a little brainstorming they realized the infrastructure and technology to set up free Wi-Fi downtown was practically at their fingertips.
All they needed was a little initiative, which was not a problem for the pair of community activists. Pierce recently ran for mayor and operates the Ypsi News blog that reports stories and broadcasts city meetings. Robb also recently ran for city council (he won while Pierce lost) and writes the East-Cross blog.
Meraki is the technology that makes Wireless Ypsi possible. The Google-funded start up uses off-white transmitters that look like a child's walkie talkie to connect Internet hot spots at local businesses, institutions and homes. The transmitters use the extra bandwidth from the hot spots to create a mesh-like net of Wi-Fi coverage.
Each transmitter runs about $50, which is an amazing deal when you consider that larger, less efficient units ran $1,800 only a few years ago. "The technology has finally caught up with what people want to do," Pierce says.
At the beginning of this year, Pierce and Robb started talking to downtown business owners about putting one of the transmitters in their windows. They now have 17 downtown businesses participating that either share their bandwidth or act as a relay station so people can enjoy free Internet speeds of about 1.5 megabytes or about the speed of DSL or T1 connections.
So far it's working well in a place like Ypsi. Although the Meraki technology probably wouldn't work in a spread-out rural setting (a transmitter's range is at best 600 feet) it fits in well in a dense, urban setting conducive to sharing.
"Bandwidth is a hot commodity," Tracy says. "It's generous for them to do that."
They are working with local residents and city leaders to expand the coverage area to Riverside and Frog Island parks and the surrounding neighborhoods. They hope to eventually spread the network throughout the city, especially to low-income housing buildings so high-speed Internet access can be available to everyone.
“There are far too many people in the county who have to depend on dial-up,” Pierce says. “We have to change that.”
People power versus profits
That sentiment kind of sums the so-called business model of Wireless Ypsi, which is run more like Craigslist than Google. While Metro Detroit’s other Wi-Fi initiatives are centered on signing up customers to subscriptions to establish profit margins, Wireless Ypsi is based on the idea of a community network.
Participants pay for transmitters out of their own pockets while Robb and Pierce manage the system from their laptops. They troubleshoot the network and make sure people logged on aren’t hogging bandwidth. Serial offenders are warned and eventually banned. The idea is anyone who gets out of hand will run out of network cards before the administrators run out of time.
"We want to share," Pierce says. "Don’t be a jerk about it. This is a shared network. Be reasonable."
Plenty of people are finding it reasonable. The network has 500 unique computers logging on to it within its first six weeks. Pierce and Robb hope to top 1,000 by the end of the month since people wishing to log on don’t have to buy a subscription, give a password or even sign up.
Similar systems are spreading in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego. More than 50,000 different people have logged onto San Francisco’s Meraki network, which covers large sections of the city and has the goal of reaching every neighborhood. Other initiatives to spread Wi-Fi in the Bay area have not met with as much success.
Metro Detroit's other wireless initiatives are fighting for their own success. While Wireless Oakland covers parts of six major population centers and is logging 60,000 sessions per week as of last fall, it’s dealing with a number of investor issues. Wireless Macomb is also trying to attract new investors after setting up its pilot phase in Mt. Clemens. It recently switched companies to head up the effort.
The wireless initiatives in Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties are all at least several months if not years away from reaching their goals of covering their respective counties. Ambitious goals that are shared with many other metropolises across the country that local efforts are still struggling to achieve.
In the mean time, free high speed Wi-Fi is limited to coffee shop and library hot spots, another area Detroit lags in compared to other big cities. JiWire, a San Francisco-based Wi-Fi advertising firm, indicates that the Motor City is way behind in the race for Wi-Fi connectivity.
The Web site says that Detroit proper has 51 hot spots, compared to 54 for Sterling Heights and 71 for Birmingham. Even Ann Arbor, the closet thing Metro Detroit has to a Silicon Valley, has 82. In comparison, Denver has 182, Chicago 630 and San Francisco 1,031. Although this is an unscientific count of Wi-Fi connections it gives us an inkling about where we stand in the race for the preferred way to surf the Web.
Are we going to be at a point in the near future where wires will be largely non-essential for personal Web browsing? Possibly, UofD Mercy's Tracy says, but it's something we'll have to wait and see if the technology catches up.
"If you put a time line on it we could have a whole different ball game in 10 years," Tracy says.
Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was MODErn Living.
Steve Pierce at Pub 13 - Ypsilanti
Meraki transmitters - courtesy
Steve Pierce and Brian Robb discuss expansion of Wi-Fi in Downtown Ypsilanti
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni