Ottawa Builds Big Networks

By Gerry Blackwell

January 18, 2005

The cold of Minnesota (nor the heat of New Mexico) does not deter this company from carrying out its mission: building truly city-wide hotspots for municipalities.

One of the most exciting ideas in Wi-Fi is the notion of blanket wireless coverage for entire cities. Everywhere you go in the burg you can get a connection for Internet access or voice over IP (VoIP). Businesses and home owners can subscribe to a fixed service, and also get mobile access when they're out and about. Visitors and others can subscribe to a hotspot-like service. It's wireless utopia.

Numerous projects are underway around the world that promise to ultimately provide city-wide coverage, but Ottawa Wireless, a start-up in out-of-the-way Grand Haven, Michigan, claims to have the only actual city-wide Wi-Fi system in operation: Grand Haven, population 12,000.

The city, which spreads out over about 6.2 square miles, is no booming metropolis, but the company had to start somewhere. Now it's moving up the food chain. Its next deployment, recently announced, will be in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, a city of about 63,000 and 72 square miles. Another unannounced New Mexico city is in the pipeline; It has a population of 75,000.

"And we're deep in a conversation with a city of over 300,000," says Ottawa Wireless CEO and co-founder Tyler van Houwelingen. "It becomes a different challenge when you get into that kind of urban environment, though. There's a lot more interference. So much of the engineering goes into avoiding interference—even in cities where we are now."

Ottawa Wireless, named after the county in Michigan where Grand Haven is located (no relation to the Canadian capital), has an interesting history. The expat founders started in Spain two years ago with a company called Azulstar, developing technology strategies, server software and antenna systems to provide mobile broadband services, including VoIP.

Their idea all along was to use the technology to provide city-wide coverage, but no Spanish city was willing to serve as the guinea pig—so van Houwelingen looked homeward to Grand Haven. The powers that be in his home town embraced the concept.

The Azulstar founders formed a new company, Ottawa Wireless, and came to an agreement with Grand Haven under which it would use city owned sites to mount its wireless points of presence (POPs). The city would get a percentage of revenues, and a clause in the agreement gave Grand Haven the option of buying the network at some point in the future.

In the meantime, Ottawa Wireless owns and manages the technology. It's a hybrid Wi-Fi/WiMax network that includes about 60 wireless POPs, most with one access point—usually from Proxim—some with two, plus a pre-WiMax 5GHz point-to-multipoint backhaul network with a single fiber connection to the company's wide area network service provider.

"It's a challenging environment," van Houwelingen says of Grand Haven. "It's dense with trees, it's right on [Lake Michigan], there are hills and lots of wind. That made it a complex network to engineer."

"It's easy enough to set up a hotspot at the end of a DSL link, it's another thing to do a whole city with technology that was not intended for this," he adds. "And the network we put up is fully mobile. You can talk on a Wi-Fi phone with nice hand-offs."

The company's Web site indicates that it is currently offering mobile VoIP service—with unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada—for $30 a month. However, van Houwelingen says it's really only beta testing at this point, and will probably go live with VoIP in Rio Rancho before it does in Grand Haven.

He hints at technical problems with quality of service (QoS) on the network in Grand Haven. Also, many of the phones available, including WiSIP phones from companies such as Pulver Innovations, lack the transmit power to be used effectively in the kinds of networks Ottawa Wireless is building, van Houwelingen says. Other, better phones are coming, though, he notes.

The company serves as the Internet Service Provider in Grand Haven and will in other cities as well. It offers a range of fixed and fixed-plus-mobile services priced from $20 to $80 a month depending on download/upload speeds (from 256/100 Kbps to 1,000/400 Kbps), and whether mobile connectivity is included in the service. It also offers daily, weekly and monthly hotspot-style passes.

Sections of the network have been live since 2003 in initial trials. The last of the infrastructure, which extended coverage across the entire city and out on to the lake for boaters, was in place by July 2004, in time for the grand opening ceremony on July 28.

As of early December, the company had about 1,000 customers. They're a mix of monthly subscribers and hotspot users, van Houwelingen says. Not bad for a city of 12,000.

"We're surprised how many businesses have taken it up," he says. "And we thought we'd really just reach dial-up customers, but a lot of our subscribers are giving up DSL or cable to take our service."

"We have a lot of enterprises interested in point-to-point links and VPN [Virtual Private Network] roaming too. And we're also doing testing with the police now. We think we can bring value to many segments in the community. Customers are very happy with the service so far."

News of the Grand Haven network primed the market for Ottawa Wireless in other parts of the country. One of the New Mexico projects came about when another vendor promised the municipality a city-wide network, then couldn't deliver. With the Grand Haven project on its resume, Ottawa Wireless was able to land the contract within weeks.

The company accepted local angel funding for the Rio Rancho project, which is expected to go live in March 2005. As van Houwelingen says, "Local money is the smart money." Ottawa Wireless has now launched a separate division to run the Rio Rancho business—not coincidentally named Azulstar, the same as the original Spanish company.

Rio Rancho will be operated in almost exactly the same way as the Grand Haven project. Azulstar will own and operate the network and serve as ISP. Some other cities the company has talked to are interested in owning the network themselves, van Houwelingen says. "But we haven't found a really good model yet for the city to own it. We think it should be in the private sector."

The Rio Rancho network will be bigger than Grand Haven with more like 125 Wi-Fi POPs providing last mile connectivity. 802.16/pre-WiMax will play a larger role, but the network architecture will be the same. Van Houwelingen says WiMax is the key to scaling the company's network architecture and offering additional enterprise services. One technological difference in Rio Rancho: the company is starting to use Wi-Fi access points from Meru Networks.

Since Grand Haven, Ottawa Wireless has expanded into another ten west Michigan communities, some bordering on Grand Haven, though it's not providing city-wide coverage in any of the new municipalities. There will be continued expansion in Michigan.

"There are a lot of things on the table. Michigan is a big area," van Houwelingen says. "Grand Haven sparked a fire that can't be put out now. There is one very interesting project in Michigan where we're late in discussions. Beyond that, there's nothing firm, though there's a lot in the pipeline. The question now is how can we scale up our organization fast enough."

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