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Wisconsin cities make progress on wireless Internet coverage

Madison, Wis. - Wisconsin's two largest cities are moving closer to providing wireless Internet access throughout their geographic limits, and several others continue to build their own wireless networks.

In addition to localized wireless "hot-spots" offered in public facilities, hotels, cafes, and shops, cities like Madison, Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Shawano continue to make strides toward implementing large-scale municipal wireless networks.

Mad world

With the establishment of seamless access between the Dane County Regional Airport and downtown areas, Madison is perhaps the furthest along. The interconnected airport system became operational early this month.

"We certainly see people using it," said Sharon Wisniewski, communications director for Dane County Regional Airport. "It's something people now expect at airports, and it's really an advantage for our travelers who live and work here in the area."
There have been a few complaints since the system began running. "Sometimes people will have glitches getting on to it," Wisniewski said, "but I think that's just a matter of people getting used to it."

InSite Wireless, an indoor facility wireless provider based in Alexandria, Va., provided the airport with wireless access. InSite's airport coverage was introduced alongside a broader Wi-Fi network in the city proper, covering 10 square miles of Madison's downtown.

Mad City Broadband, a division of Georgia-based Cellnet Technology, Inc., is managing Madison's citywide wireless system using hardware from Cisco Systems. With 110 transmitters set up throughout the isthmus, downtown coverage is almost fully ubiquitous.

Having moved beyond the free trial phase launched in February, Mad City will begin compiling feedback from users to install additional access points to overcome interference from city topography, said Mad City spokeswoman Eve Galanter. She also said that 2007 would be the earliest that wireless Internet service would be brought to other areas of Madison.

"Over the last several months, we estimate that over 4,000 Madisonians have used our service at least once," Galanter said.

More fiber for Milwaukee

Outside Madison, several Wisconsin communities are either considering or implementing broadband networks. Milwaukee is in the final stages of negotiation with Midwest Fiber Networks to set up a wireless network, according to Randy Gschwind, Milwaukee's chief information officer. The deadline is June 30 to finalize the contract with early July marked for building the network itself.

In the non-exclusive agreement, the vendor will be required to install a six-square-mile demonstration area within four months. The test site will comprise a western portion of the downtown, including the Marquette University neighborhood plus other residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

"It will be a good proving ground," Gschwind said.

Within 18 months, the vendor will be required to complete the citywide network of approximately 96 square miles and to open broadband space for ISPs to compete for customers.

Internet security in Milwaukee, as in Madison, will rely heavily on ISPs and the wireless Internet customers, themselves. "There are a lot of different security standards and much of it is dependant on users of the network," Gschwind said. "We're asking ISPs to make security a standard option."

Gschwind said Milwaukee will generate revenues derived from equally divided wireless and hardwire services based on access to city conduits, street-lights, and other municipal infrastructure. "We do get a piece of the action," he said.

Milwaukee will receive other benefits such as free accounts, money in a digital-divide fund, job training, and a "walled garden" of 60 free social service Websites oriented primarily toward low-income users.

General Mitchell International Airport offers a paid wireless service through Sprint, said airport information officer Pat Rowe, but it remains to be seen whether a link-up will be established in tandem with the city.

Wireless Waukesha

Like Milwaukee, the city of Waukesha is holding discussions with network builders. Waukesha's information technology manager, Bret Mantey, expects to develop a contract on the estimated $2 to $3 million citywide network with Colorado-based RITE Brain Communications and Consulting and Ontario-based Nortel Networks Corp. in early July.

Mantey said that Waukesha is approaching municipal Wi-Fi with a deliberate focus on a feasible business model, leaving technology issues to the vendor. "We've gone out of our way to make sure they [RITE Brain and Nortel] have strong models ensuring success for five to seven years from now," he said.

Mantey also expects the city's Wi-Fi efforts to harmonize with the county. Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas announced a wireless initiative in March but the plan might face piecemeal implementation. Utilizing infrastructure in the eastern part of the county, including densely populated communities like Brookfield and New Berlin, will take cooperation from the various municipalities.

Another challenge to building a comprehensive county wireless network will be providing access to the sparsely populated west. "If the county is going to honor what they said, they will need to find a vendor willing to install a $40 million system," Mantey said.

Bigger antennas in Shawano

Some smaller communities are getting into Wi-Fi independent of county efforts. Since April 1, Shawano residents have had access to a pubic Wi-Fi network with a single ISP, Granite Wireless.

Andy Onesti, Shawano's municipal utilities general manager, said that end-user equipment has been the biggest challenge. When the system became operational, users received a great signal but the wireless cards they were using in their laptops were not powerful enough to send a signal back to the radio transmitters.

To remedy the situation, Shawano installed antennas to amplify the signal. There now are approximately 40 users on Shawano's network, but Onesti expects more people to gravitate to the service as the kinks are worked out.

"I think word of mouth is going to get it going," he said.

Related stories

Green Bay area businesses ramp up wireless access

Milwaukee makes citywide wireless deal

Shawano to build city-wide Wi-Fi broadband wireless network

Madison asks for wireless bids; airport, downtown would be first

Rural Wisconsin town gets high-speed Internet access

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