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Milwaukee could be wireless in 18 months

Milwaukee, Wis - This week, the clock starts ticking on the 18-month window for Midwest Fiber Networks to complete installation work on the city's wireless Internet service.

After months of indecision and the courting of other prospective vendors such as EarthLink and Cellnet, Mayor Tom Barrett decided to sign a contract allowing locally owned Midwest Fiber access to city facilities to build a $20 million "Wi-Fi" network, starting with a demonstration area west of downtown.

Work on that demonstration area began this week with radio frequency mapping.

"The 18-month window starts now," said Donna Raffaelli, a partner in Midwest Fiber. "That is definitely what we've committed to."

As for the schedule, the only thing that's certain is that the first neighborhoods to see some of the estimated 3,000 antennas mounted on street lights and other facilities is the area bounded on the east by Interstate 43, on the west by U.S. Highway 41, on the south by W. Canal Street, and on the north by W. Vliet Street. By contract, installation work in this demonstration area must be done by mid-January of 2007.
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Beyond this section of the city, the pattern of roll out will not be determined by preference, but by technical considerations, Raffaelli said. At this point, she isn't sure which neighborhoods will be the first to receive wireless service.

"It's going to be less a question of preference as it will be about technology and scheduling," she stated. "So as we work with the demonstration area, and we work through the details on the demonstration area, the operational characteristics of engineering and permit application, and the process for the distribution of the equipment, we'll get a better feel for how we're going to be able to go around the city in terms of geography.

"It will also be a function of how the radio frequency mapping results look. What's going to be the easiest way to roll out the city from a technology standpoint?"

Walled garden

Users will pay a monthly fee of about $20 to visit access wireless service, but there will be 60 free sites consisting of city agencies and non-profits. Midwest Fiber will be collaborating with the city and others representatives involved in the project to identify which 60 sites will be free.

Raffaelli said the actual pricing for monthly subscription services would be determined by internet service providers. "Other than we are looking for a commitment from providers to be in the $20 or below per month range for service offerings, as a technicality we don't control what they will be selling the Internet service for," she said. "But it is an open and competitive network. The goal and the objective here is to remain competitive and therefore bring down prices."

She said the internet service providers will be identified in a separate announcement.

Based on the terms of its contract with the city, Midwest Fiber has plenty of incentive to complete the work on time. If it falls behind, another company would have the right to use city facilities.

Consumers - business and otherwise - are likely to demand it, given all the delays that already have occurred.

"If it doesn't get done, there will be a quick and pretty aggressive action to find some entity that can [complete the project]," said Steve Baas, director of government affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "There would be a quick reaction to the demands of the consumer base."

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