While the vast majority of the lakes area was hunkered down, preparing for the impending “snowpocalypse” that was slated to dump up to a foot of snow on metro Detroit, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson was preparing to dump something entirely different and far less ominous on county residents: A new plan to resurrect the stalled Wireless Oakland project, albeit in a scaled back form.
In his State of the County address delivered on Tuesday, Feb. 1, Patterson provided a broad-brush view of what the new vision for the Wireless Oakland effort would be — “son of Wireless Oakland,” the county’s long-time Republican standard-bearer coined it.
The plan? To have Air Advantage, a Frankenmuth-based wireless Internet provider, utilize public assets — mainly radio towers that are already in place throughout the county — to offer up wireless Internet service to three Oakland County communities that are considered underserved by major Internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T.
Air Advantage, which has been in business since 2002 as a provider of Internet services to underserved areas, has received federal dollars — both in the form of a grant and a loan — from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), otherwise known as the federal stimulus bill, that was signed into law by President Barack Obama two years ago to provide broadband Internet service to underserved rural areas across the United States, according to Deputy County Executive Phil Bertolini, who heads up the county’s Wireless Oakland team.
“We knew that there were a lot of underserved areas in what we call ‘the Thumb’ of Michigan,” said Air Advantage President Scott Zimmer. “As we did our research, that brought us into northern Oakland (county),” as well as Macomb County.
The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service received $7.2 billion in stimulus package funding to speed up access to broadband service in areas without the required infrastructure, according to the White House. Of that, $4.7 billion was available to roll out such service in “unserved and underserved areas.”
Zimmer said it was his company that first put feelers out to Oakland County leadership to get their take.
“It just kind of took off from there,” he said.
“We helped them figure out what areas of our county are rural and underserved with broadband,” Bertolini said.
Some portions of the lakes area — including Milford Township and some parts of Highland Township, “a little sliver” of the western portion of White Lake Township, as well as several other Oakland County communities — are going to be in the running for the Internet service, Bertolini said, in addition to the three initial communities of Clarkston, Oxford and Holly. The service in Clarkston, Oxford and Holly would be a subscription service requiring users to pay for Internet access.
Zimmer said that, within the next 30 to 45 days, the ball will start rolling on the project. Bertolini said that the three initial communities should have access to the Internet service by the fall.
This project would be — like the Wireless Oakland project unveiled in Patterson’s State of the County address in 2005 — entirely a private sector effort in which no public dollars are used to provide the service, Bertolini said.
“What they needed to do was to get on to some of our public assets, namely our radio towers,” Bertolini said. “So what we’ve done is we’ve created an exchange where we allow them to be on our radio towers and in exchange, for each tower they get, they’ll put up a downtown (area) with free wireless (Internet) for anybody to come into that downtown to use.”
According to Bertolini, the WiFi network for “son of Wireless Oakland” that is expected to be utilized is a 802.11-frequency signal. Bertolini likened it to technology that functions similar to a wireless Internet router that people use in their homes or offices.
Bertolini stressed that the new “son of Wireless Oakland” won’t cost county taxpayers a dollar because the infrastructure needed for the project already exists and the balance of the costs will be borne by the private sector.
“That’s on purpose because we believe with the assets we already have, they have value so they are providing the value of the free wireless in the downtowns,” he said. “They (Air Advantage) want (the use of) 10 government towers. There will be 10 downtowns that will be lit up with free wireless by the time it’s over with.”
And that’s the key area where the new plan differs from the old one. While Wireless Oakland was envisioned to blanket the entire county in free wireless service, “son of Wireless Oakland” would only provide services to around one-sixth of Oakland County’s 61 communities.
Bertolini said that stipulations in the ARRA require that the money be spent within a three-year period. The company’s vision has to be “up and operational” by the time that deadline comes, but Bertolini said he anticipates the company working quicker in Oakland County “because there is more of a buying public here, so I would think they are going to move a lot quicker on Oakland” than in other areas.
The Wireless Oakland project, as proposed by Patterson six years ago, also would have spared the county’s coffers. No county funding was involved in building the system. Consumers would have to pay a fee to receive high-speed wireless Internet service after the project was finished.
Receptors placed on the towers would have facilitated WiFi and WiMAX point-to-point solutions in the original incarnation of Wireless Oakland. WiMax is an acronym for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, which allows information to go from one wireless hot spot to another in a specific area.
In addition to providing free, 128 kilobits per second (kbps) Internet access for county residents, visitors, and businesses, another goal of Wireless Oakland was to bridge the “digital divide” by providing personal computers and technology training at little-to-no cost to county residents who generally have no access to those tools. Finally, the project was to support local governments in continued high-tech investments.
Those wishing for faster Internet service could pay for 512 kbps service under the original Wireless Oakland plan that has stalled in recent years.
The rates that were set were between $20 and $40 per month, Bertolini said.
At issue, first and foremost, in the deflation of the initial Wireless Oakland project that was launched several years ago was the crumbling of the Michigan and U.S. economies. Initially conceived as a way for the public and private sectors to partner together to provide a public good — the free basic WiFi Internet access for anyone in the county’s borders — the ambitious effort hit multiple speed bumps along the road to completion, eventually sputtering and then coming to an unofficial standstill a couple years ago.
It had been delayed, postponed, shifted around, rejiggered, and even put on the backburner in light of the lack of willing private sector investors. The county got anxious, but remained optimistic. Patterson and his team insisted that the project was still a “go” — that is, once the private sector got the appropriate funds to start chipping in for the project.
But in January 2008, the initiative championed by Oakland County officials to provide free WiFi Internet access to county residents ran into financial snags resulting in another delay in the final roll out. At that time, reports of a roughly $70-million shortfall prompted officials to put the Wireless Oakland project on an indefinite hiatus until alternatives or more investors materialized.
Minor technological issues also caused delays, but they weren’t nearly as burdensome as the lack of private sector investment in the project, Bertolini said. The technology was ready; investors, on the other hand, were not.
Even so, county officials aren’t giving up hope on the original endeavor just yet. Bertolini said the county is still working to secure private sector funding for the original Wireless Oakland project.
“We are still out there seeking companies that might still be interested in lighting those assets up,” Bertolini said last week. “We just haven’t gotten there yet. No one’s taken us up on that yet.”
MichTel was the prime contractor for the initial project. Other partners in the Wireless Oakland project included Cisco Systems, RF Connect, Johnson Controls, LeCom, and Microsoft. The project had netted roughly $5 million in private-sector investment and commitment.
At one point there were upwards of 20,000 users of the free wireless service made available in the seven pilot communities, according to Bertolini. Although the number of paying customers fluctuated due to the monthly subscriptions for high-speed wireless service, he added that there were about 100 paying customers.
Wixom Assistant City Manager Tony Nowicki said the initiative that featured his city as one of the seven original pilot communities for the project — along with Pontiac, Birmingham, Royal Oak, Oak Park, Madison Heights, and Troy — has “basically gone by the wayside,” although there is still wireless Internet service on the City Hall campus located on Pontiac Trail, although not through Wireless Oakland.
“Right now, the only wireless that’s available would be through the private sector,” Nowicki said. “There’s no government-type sponsored (Internet in Wixom).”
That’s a far cry from just a few years ago when local and county officials were lauding the effort that was slated to transform the county into one of the largest geographic areas with contiguous wireless Internet service.
Nowicki said he’s been involved in discussions regarding the “son of Wireless Oakland” project and that those discussions have generally entailed city administration indicating that “if there’s any opportunity to participate, we are more than willing to assist in any way we can.”
“We did try and move ahead with our own type of wireless utilizing the former assets of MichTel and unfortunately” the project fell through, Nowicki said, due to some legal issues that couldn’t be resolved.
Milford Township Supervisor Don Greene said he hadn’t heard of efforts to bring expanded WiFi access to Milford.
Highland Township Supervisor Triscia Pilchowski said the area’s in her community that will be affected by the possible new wireless Internet service are expected to be in the southwest, southeast, and northwest quadrants of the township.
In 2005 when the Wireless Oakland was formally announced, Highland Township unsuccessfully lobbied to become one of the original seven pilot communities that received the effort’s services, according to Pilchowski.
“Any way we can enhance the ability for our residents and business community to communicate through the Internet is a plus,” she said, adding that Internet options in the township “could be a whole lot better.”
“We are basically reliant on Comcast,” she said. “Any improvement is an improvement.”
White Lake Township Supervisor Greg Baroni couldn’t be reached for comment prior to press time on the community’s inclusion in the rejuvenated wireless Internet access efforts.