Michigan Tries Wi-Fi for Travelers

By Naomi Graychase

May 23, 2005

What does a state with a 'bare-bones budget' do to offer Wi-Fi to vacationers? It partners with a provider to see if they can both benefit.

SBC Communications has teamed up with the state government of Michigan to offer Wi-Fi access at rest areas, state parks, marinas, and welcome centers throughout the state. The pilot project, dubbed MiWiFi, was rolled out last September and includes ten locations throughout the state.

Visitors to the Ludington State Park, New Buffalo Welcome Center, Coldwater Welcome Center, Clarkston Rest Area, Grand Haven State Park, Holland State Park, Mackinak Island State Dock, Charles Mears State Park, Sterling State Park, and East Tawas State Dock can purchase wireless access to SBC FreedomLink hotspots in 24-hour blocks for $7.95. Existing SBC customers pay significantly less.

During the month of April, SBC offered free access to everyone at the MiWiFi locations, in the hopes of raising awareness and generating interest as the state moves into the busy summer travel season. The free trial month saw a dramatic spike in usage, but it remains to be seen whether those numbers will remain high this summer, when travelers will have to open their wallets to get access to the service.

The pilot program is intended to run for three years, but at the end of this summer, planners will conduct their first serious assessment of the success of MiWiFi and determine whether to go forward.

As cities and communities around the country struggle to find a successful model for incorporating public Wi-Fi, Michigan has opted for the pay-as-you-go method that requires that virtually no burden be placed on taxpayers.

"The start of this thing was the national craze for wireless," says Kurt Weiss, Communications Director for the Michigan Department of Information Technology. "The Michigan Department of Natural Resources asked their campers, 'What would you like to see in the campgrounds that we don't offer you?' Wireless and cable television were what they wanted. That's what prompted our early negotiations with SBC. We said, 'Here's a service we'd like to try. The state is broke. We don't have taxpayer dollars to go around.' And they said, 'We'll pay for the pilot. We'll pay for the installation of the Wi-Fi.' They get paid every time someone logs on, and we didn't have to pay for the installation. There's something in it for them and for us."

Nationwide, SBC is currently operating roughly 6,700 hotspots within its FreedomLink network, mostly at airports, restaurants and other public locations. 300 of those hotspots are in Michigan. The hope is that truckers, boaters, and recreational and business travelers will put the ten major MiWiFi hotspots to use in large numbers.

Two state marinas, both in the northeastern quadrant of the state, will be offering MiWiFi hotspots when they open this summer.

"Even on their boats, people are doing business," says Weiss. "Our thought process was that there's two kinds of vacationer—the ones who want to get away from work completely, and the ones who feel they can't do that. But if wireless were there, they could go and enjoy it. They could still log on and get a little work done. That segment of the population is who we're targeting: the ones who need to be in touch all the time."

With the initial rollout of MiWiFi last fall, Michigan became the first state in the nation to offer Wi-Fi at state parks. Because of what Weiss calls the state's "bare-bones budget," promoting the new service has been difficult.

"Originally, we were going to do road signs, but at this point, the signage is only at the rest areas, docks, and campgrounds," Weiss says. "You have to be there to know there's Wi-Fi available. There are no billboards. There's just not money to promote this project. SBC and Intel partnered with us and they purchased a bunch of brochures. But the signage before you get there is missing."

While it's too early in the pilot to know if SBC and Michigan are reaching their target demographic, Weiss says at least one young person was delighted to discover she could complete an assignment while sitting on the beach.

"We were at Holland [State Park], a great, gorgeous sand beach," says Weiss. "We've got the antennas up, and the news showed up, and we launch the thing, and this old guy, about 75 or 80 years old, drives by on his bike and says, 'Can't you keep these damn computers out of anywhere?' And then a student from college, a young girl, says 'Oh, awesome! I have to turn in a paper. Can I log on?' And she mailed a paper to her professor, sitting right there in the sand."

The MiWiFi pilot will be monitored by SBC and overseen by the Michigan Department of Information Technology, in conjunction with the state's Department of Natural Resources, which runs the campgrounds, and the Department of Transportation, which maintains the rest areas. A nonprofit organization called Travel Michigan is also involved.



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