Wireless Internet Access (sidebar)

(from Maine Townsman, March 2006)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

Following in the tradition that brought electricity and telephone service to rural America, municipalities across the country are setting up wireless Internet access for little or no expense to users.

Cerritos, California and Spokane, Washington were among the first to create municipal networks, and Chaska, Minnesota; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Cleveland, Ohio, also have networks covering parts of or all of their municipalities.

So-called WiFi networks (for wireless fidelity) uses low power microwave radio to provide high-speed Internet service to small areas. Initially deployed in universities, hotels and airports, wireless “hotspots” can cover an entire community.

There are no municipal networks in Maine, although Bowdoin College has extended its free campus WiFi to downtown Brunswick. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, said there’s nothing to prevent the creation of municipally subsidized WiFi, even in the smallest most remote communities, she said.

“We have the technology, it’s affordable, and we’re not dependent on big utilities,” she said. “If we have to give utilities and cable companies big incentives to deliver service and at the same time, we have the capability to do it ourselves, why not go that route?”

Three communities in the Rockland area are already served by low-cost wireless “mesh” networks set up by private companies. Mesh-Air serves Camden and Appleton for $15 per month, which is about one third the price of competing DSL or cable service. Redzone Wireless serves Thomaston for $19.95 a month. Travelers with a laptop and a credit card can access either system for less than $5 per day.

The founders of the two networks used to be partners, but split up to develop separate business plans. Jim McKenna of Redzone is seeking to provide “soup-to-nuts” service to municipalities, while Taylor Vaughn of Mesh-Air is willing to work on a smaller, more grassroots scale.

“Mesh-Air’s idea is different than most,” said Mesh-Air CEO Vaughn of Appleton. “We want to be in the unserved areas of Maine where people can’t get a connection.”

The ingredients to set up a mesh network are pretty modest. First is access to a T-1, DSL or fiber optic line. All Maine communities now have this service at either a town library, the schools, or both through the Maine School and Library Network. Also needed is a collection of radio-wave nodes set up at various high points in the community. Such a system can be set up for an investment of $10,000 to $80,000 depending on the topography and size of community, said Vaughn.

The minimal investment means minimal cost to users.

“If you have [a mesh] in your community, there’s no reason not to sign up,” said Chris Rector, a Republican state representative from Thomaston who hosts a node on the roof of his barn.

The low-cost appeal of WiFi is a threat to big telcos and cable companies with huge investments in copper, fiber optic and coaxial cable systems.

When Philadelphia announced plans in 2004 for a municipally subsidized WiFi network throughout the city’s 135 square miles, Verizon moved to block the rollout through state legislation. The compromise legislation allows Philadelphia’s plan to go forward but prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering subsidized Internet access if it can be provided by the private sector.

Rector said its unclear whether municipal WiFi would face such opposition in Maine. On the one hand, the service is cheaper than what is available from telephone and cable companies. On the other hand, WiFi might complement rather than compete with existing companies in rural parts of Maine.

“If it becomes enormously successful ... then probably they [Verizon] might throw up roadblocks,” Rector said.