Welcome to the Unwired City
Tired of trying to locate a hot spot to connect wirelessly with your laptop or PDA? As of this week the citizens of Grand Haven, MI, no longer have that concern--they're living in the nation's first fully wireless municipality--a "hot city"--compliments of a city-wide wireless network.
Grand Haven is a 6-square-mile beach and harbor community that sits on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and has a population of approximately 12,000. The wireless network there relies on Wi-Fi, the same radio-frequency technology that brings Internet connectivity to latte lovers in many coffee bars and road warriors in some airport lounges. Of course, Grand Haven's setup is significantly more complex.
The company that implemented the town's Wi-Fi network, Ottawa Wireless, has installed approximately 250 radios, enough to provide the entire city--and 15 miles offshore--with fixed and roaming broadband access of speeds ranging from 256 kilobits per second (kbps) to 1 megabit per second (mbps). Approximately 300 customers have signed up so far, for between $19.99 and $84.99 per month.
Why Grand Haven? It happens to be the former hometown of Ottawa Wireless founder and CEO Tyler van Houwelingen. A few phone calls, he says now, were all it took to get the project rolling, in the summer of 2003.
About 15 businesses are hooked into the network already, and several are using the network to their advantage. Van Houwelingen says one real estate agency connected to the network to allow Realtors to remotely access new listings and pricing information. At the local Best Western Hotel, the franchise owners subsidized free guest access.
Other benefits include some civic applications: continual offshore access to boaters traveling at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour; the remote maintenance of wireless surveillance cameras installed by the local police; universal connectivity at the city's marinas; and Internet-based telephone service--VoIP--available city-wide.
Although it's not yet clear what the system's ultimate capacity might be, Van Houwelingen estimates it "can support thousands and thousands" of users simultaneously. "Figuring out the limits will be critical as we roll out to higher-density cities," he says.
Ottawa Wireless may have to make those calculations quickly. The surrounding county, with about 130,000 residents, has asked Ottawa to extend the system beyond the city limits.
Of the 250 radios in place throughout Grand Haven, about 100 are access points, or links directly to the single fiber-optic line that Ottawa has laid across town. The rest are bridges and the like--radio transceivers that pick up and retransmit signals, extending the system's reach beyond the initial radius of each access point. Operating in tandem, the units provide what van Houwelingen refers to as "the cloud of connectivity anywhere."
But the network's breadth presents some unique obstacles. One is overlapping, competing networks. Van Houwelingen says there are two coffee shops in town that offer Wi-Fi access, and that his subscribers have the choice: "You can get our signal or their signal." Given the fact that these radio signals share a relatively narrow slice of the spectrum, "the interference is a huge issue," he says.
Installing a system of this magnitude also required some delicate negotiation. "We teamed up with the city, and got a franchise similar to a cable franchise," van Houwelingen says. "We had the right to put antennas where we wanted--within reason." So the company began installing antennas and radios on buildings, streetlights, and utility poles.
In this regard Grand Haven is not alone. Just this week New York City assigned licenses to six wireless providers looking to attach Wi-Fi antennas to streetlights, traffic signals, and other city infrastructure. In the United Kingdom the government has proposed adding 150,000 solar-powered wireless access points to the infrastructure of the country's highway system.
While other American cities, including Spokane, WA, and Long Beach, CA, lay claim to partial wireless coverage, Grand Haven is the first city to provide seamless coverage to its entire population. Still, it's not the first in the world. That distinction belongs to Zamora, Spain, which had its city-wide wireless system up and running in 2002.
According to van Houwelingen, anyone who attempts a wireless network on this scale has their work cut out for them. "The technology challenge really surprised us," he says. "It's a lot harder than it looks. It's nothing as simple as, 'Let's hang a few access points.'"
Van Houwelingen discovered that "there are only one or two ways that actually work," and that while Ottawa has achieved reliability approaching 100 percent, it's a solution that "required trial and error for a couple of years"--and one he's in no hurry to share with others.
But that doesn't mean he's without sympathy. "I can feel the pain of people going in to try this right now," van Houwelingen says. "Because they're going to have a lot of pain."
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