Wi-Fi for Rural Michigan Towns

By Naomi Graychase

August 04, 2005

Socially conscious ISP Arialink is helping an underprivileged area of the state get wireless broadband.

Thanks to a $2.2 million federal Community Development Block Grant and the efforts of the Michigan Broadband Development Authority (MDBA), Arialink, a Lansing, Michigan-based broadband service provider, will be bringing Wi-Fi to all of Muskegon County. Muskegon officials believe this to be the first full, county-wide deployment in the country.

When completed, the project will blanket every corner of Muskegon county, a roughly 400 square mile area, which is home to approximately 65,000 households. Initially, the deployment will focus on five communities—Cedar Creek, Egelston, Holton, and Moorland townships, and Lakewood Club village—which are currently underserved due either to their rural location, or to the low- to moderate-income (LMI) status of the majority of the populations there.

The current leaders in the local broadband market are telecommunications giants Verizon and Comcast, who have not made access available to parts of Muskegon County, or have offered it at prices that prohibit most families in the area from subscribing. The federal grant is intended to help bring access to individuals and businesses who might not otherwise be able to afford it. A monthly subscription will require no contract, a one-time $25 setup fee, and then $17.99 per month. That's a significantly lower rate than the roughly $40 monthly fees charged by Verizon and Comcast.

While Arialink ultimately hopes its investment in this area will be profitable for the company, there is an element of social responsibility at work as well.

Arialink President Jason Schreiber says, “I believe there are several tiers—barriers—that are stopping broadband deployment now: price, education, and artificial social barriers. What I hope to accomplish is to eliminate several artificial social and economic barriers to getting people connected. I believe that that will open up access to educational and business opportunities that have the real potential of changing people’s lives. My objective is to eliminate these barriers and get the community the access it needs.”

The full deployment is expected to cost $4.6 million. Roughly half that amount was covered by the grant; the rest came in the form of loans from the MBDA.

“The great state of Michigan has a vision to accelerate the deployment of broadband technologies throughout the state,” says Schreiber. “The MBDA’s primary mission right now, as I understand it, is to be a lender to companies that traditionally would not be bank-financed, which would traditionally have high-risk, high-interest sources of funding. The authority lends money to companies in this space specifically, and I think their charter says that as long as it’s for broadband-related activities, they will base their lending on the business plan. We’ve secured a line just under $6 million through them.”

Over the next nine months, Arialink will be deploying towers, microcells, and a Motorola Canopy system for backhaul to serve those target LMI areas. Once that network is in place, the work will begin on lighting up the rest of the county.

Arialink won the bid to bring access to this area by beating out five other companies in an open RFP process. The company also offers other broadband solutions, primarily fiber optics for business clients, but chose to go with Wi-Fi for this project because of its cost-effectiveness when covering such a large area.

“Wi-Fi is easy, fast, and relatively cheap to deploy, and we get an immediate success,” Schreiber says. “Our intent is to reach the customers very quickly, deploying through our towers and microcells. As capacity expansion requires, we can expand to higher capacity technologies. Basically, we saw a very large geographical area and a limited amount of dollars, so wireless was the best choice.”

Arialink’s proposal includes plans for 15 towers and more than 100 microcells.

“We have a technology that we have been deploying around Lansing,” says Schreiber. “It’s a mesh router that uses three radios per microcell, two radios that establish peer connections to other microcells, and the omni-directional antenna that distributes to customers. The method of three radios and a microcell gives us some scalability…we have a system where you can continue to repeat the signal substantially further and deeper into the neighborhood, because we have this three-radio approach.”

Arialink also has plans to build a service center in Muskegon.

“We have not selected the site yet, but we anticipate having a service center in Muskegon with our field crew and vehicles, equipment and cable, and so forth,” Schreiber says. “The market demand is really going to determine how large a facility it is, and how many hires we make. We are also potentially locating more of the administrative sales office in that part of the state as well.”

Because many in the targeted communities have little or no experience accessing the Internet, Arialink is involved in outreach efforts to assist with training and awareness.

“We are partnering with the community colleges and the nonprofits in the county to provide computer training,” says Schreiber. “We have several demonstrations planned, and lots of outreach. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t have broadband. Maybe they don’t have or know how to use a computer. We are hoping to bridge those barriers.”

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