07 Jul Some Madisonians content without city wireless
Madison, Wis. – Madison’s five-month-old citywide wireless Internet system has some growing to do, especially when it comes to reaching coffee shop regulars.
Mad City Broadband, a division of Georgia-based Cellnet Technology, Inc., manages Madison’s Wi-Fi system, which was launched in the downtown area as free trial service in February and became a subscription-based service in June. There is plenty of skepticism as to whether consumers, already served by existing wireless Internet providers, will use the municipal service.
Mad City is working to assess market response and broaden its customer base, starting with the estimated 4,000 users who have tried the free system at least once.
However, Mad City faces considerable competition. In addition to the range of free wireless hot spots at downtown coffee shops, the University of Wisconsin-Madison provides free wireless access to students from almost every university-owned building.
WTN Media’s recent informal survey of laptop users, coffee shop employees, and airline travelers indicates that Mad City’s success is far from guaranteed.
Mad City hosts two Internet Service Providers: Restech Services and Merrimac Communications.
Restech offers standard access for approximately $20 per month with a $5 discount for people affiliated with UW-Madison and a $10 discount for customers already using a different service at home.
At the moment, it is unclear exactly how many subscribers Restech has attracted. The company also has not indicated how it plans to expand market presence. “We are still not at a point where we want to discuss our future plans yet,” said Restech marketing head Carlos Schillaci. “It’s all too soon.”
Merrimac also is in a nascent phase. It is not operating on system bandwidth yet, but it advertises 1 Mbps service at approximately $20 per month. The company will use “normal newspaper advertising” to market the service once it goes online, said President Bart Olson.
When asked about quantitative goals for attracting customers within a certain period of time, Olson said, “We just have no idea yet.”
Capitol coffee and free wireless
The Ancora Coffee Roasters Café, 112 King St., offers free wireless to patrons. Ancora attracts fewer students and more business people and politicians, and manager Josh Makoutz said the sight of customers taking advantage of this service is “pretty common.”
On the west side of the capitol, Michelangelo’s Coffee, 114 State St., represents another coffee shop with free wireless service. Ashley Kelso, an employee there, said that using the service is routine for many regular customers.
Wi-Fi at Espresso Royale, 208 State St., also is free. Elizabeth Drake said a lot of the patrons she serves on a regular basis use the service.
Another free hotspot can be found two blocks west at Fair Trade Coffeehouse, 418 State St., where the mostly student customers use the service “all the time,” according to the observations of employee Jake Blomquist.
Ph.D. student Sid Stamm, visiting Madison from Indiana, was clicking through web pages and said the system was “working great.”
Another block down the street, at Steep & Brew, 544 State St., employee Chee Lor said that despite some inconsistencies in its free wireless service, a lot of people use it. Customers can receive a password as they make their purchases at the counter.
Meanwhile, at Steep & Brew’s outdoor café, Brazilian immigrant Alexandria Chastain said she relies on a private provider for wireless access at home and exclusively on coffee shops when she goes out.
At the adjacent table was UW-Madison graduate student Kevin Walsh, who said he used Mad City Broadband during the free trial phase, but not extensively. “It was a bit slow,” Walsh said, “but it did what I needed it to do. It was a good backup system for everybody, but not anymore.”
“I wish Mad City had explored open-space systems,” Walsh added. “That has worked well with non profits in a lot of other places very effectively and efficiently. Madison would have been a great place to try that.”
Open-space systems, often called Wireless Community Networks, are coordinated by grassroots groups and users who create network clusters with wireless LAN technologies.
There were a handful of patrons using laptops at the campus-area Espresso Royale, 650 State St. Customers often ask about the free wireless before ordering, said employee Laura Haertel.
“Since we’re close to campus, we get a lot of people during the school year,” she said. “And it’s good for non students who can’t use the UW’s wireless.”
Two patrons, meeting attendee Paul Overvoord and recent UW-Madison alumna Mariel Ramos, reported the Espresso Royal system was working fine.
Another Espresso Royale patron, University of California-Berkley student Ben Dewberry, said he was interested in Mad City wireless and thought about purchasing it before he discovered that his State Street apartment received a very weak signal.
Along the Capitol Loop, it is not uncommon to see patrons of Starbucks, 1 E. Main St., enjoying the sun while using laptops on the outdoor terrace. To access Starbucks’ wireless, however, customers must buy either a $6 day pass or a monthly subscription plan starting at $30 from T-Mobile.
A person who wished to remain anonymous, but is familiar with the fact that the Starbucks, located at 661 State St., is the only campus-area coffee shop that charges customers for wireless access, believes Starbucks’ competitors have almost certainly siphoned away customers by offering free wireless service.
UW-Madison graduate student Craig Mason purchased the campus Starbucks wireless service, but not without complaint.
“I’m using it because I can’t connect to anything else,” Mason said. “It kind of sucks.”
Accessing the Dane County Regional Airport Wi-Fi system costs approximately $7 for 24 hours of service. Users can pay approximately $3 more for daily access to coverage spanning both the airport and downtown.
Even during a slow period at the airport, business travelers using laptops with wireless connections peppered the terminal on a recent morning.
Ed Brognano, an account manager with Madison-based Epic Systems Corp., frequently travels through Dane County Regional. He said he has not used the Wi-Fi system anywhere else in Madison, but often uses it in the airport.
“My job is e-mail and Internet heavy,” Brognano said. “So I’ll sit here before my flight to get some work done. It allows me to connect.”
International travelers experienced the same advantages.
Philip Hassell, head of research and development at Deerac Fluidics, a Dublin-based manufacturer of low-volume, liquid-handling instruments for the life science industry, said the airport’s Wi-Fi system was working well on his second visit to clients in Madison.
“I’m traveling quite a bit for work, and I need to keep in touch,” Hassell said. “I have a few hours before my flight, and it’s handy to use a bit of my downtime to catch up on things.”
Another traveler, en route to Iraq for business, remarked: “It’s just great to have it to take care of some last bits and pieces before getting on the plane,” she said. “I actually just sent an e-mail to Baghdad, so it’s really helpful.”
Other regular airport travelers, however, reported that the system was mildly expensive.
“All I do is travel airport to airport,” said Michael, a private jet pilot who declined to provide his last name. “And I could easily spend $20 to $30 a day. The cost is just too high for me right now. I can’t afford it.”
Michael said his personal computing device from BlackBerry provides him with the wireless connectivity he requires in the terminal, while most hotels include an even faster connection as a standard amenity.
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