Massive 720-Square-Mile Wi-Fi Net In Michigan To Serve Urban And Rural Users

When it's completed at the end of this year, the Washtenaw Wireless hotspot will likely be the largest Wi-Fi network in the U.S. in terms of coverage area, the network's providers believe.

In addition to the size of the deployment, the network is distinguished by the mixing and matching of 802.11b/g in urban Ann Arbor and 802.11a in the 600-square-mile rural area of Washtenaw County. The network eschews use of WiMax because the providers believe Wi-Fi can do the job of providing advanced wireless service and also because they believe WiMax still has some problems. However, the providers say they will be able to upgrade to WiMax in the future, if it makes sense.

The 802.11a standard use the 5-Ghz band to transmit data at speeds of up to 54 Mbps and covers distances of 60 feet, although speeds decline as the distance increases. The b and g standards use the 2.4-Ghz band and offer an effective rate of 11 Mbps over distances of 300 feet. The g standard is usually used with the b standard and provides better security.

The initial 200 users are finding the service equal or superior to DSL and cable, according to Dan Skratek, project manager of Wireless Washtenaw for Ann Arbor ISP 20/20 Communications. "Many of our pilot participants currently have existing cable or DSL Internet service," said Skratek. "Those having DSL have responded with 'Better than my DSL connection.' Those with cable say they really can't tell the difference."

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The network is primarily built around equipment provided by Siemens Communications that is installed by 20/20 Communications. Siemens is providing its Siemens Wi-Fi Mesh radio network, which links with Siemens Wireless Integration Platform. The firm is also heavily involved in the management and maintenance of the sprawling network.

"This overall solution is unique because Siemens is also delivering an integrated set of services that support the county... through transformation, ongoing management, to continual improvement of their open wireless environment," said Todd Habersang, the firm's director of market managed services.

One innovative feature of the network is the breakout use of 802.11a to serve rural regions in the country.

"I live in a rural area," said Skratek. "My house is third from the end on the cable and utility lines. I run speed tests and only get above 1.2 [Mbps] down or 300k up when I can't sleep at 3 a.m. I can't wait until we're providing Washtenaw Wireless in my area. With the wireless network, no customer is last in line."

Full deployment is scheduled to get under way in March and 20/20 plans to build the network from the outside-in initially, although some parks in Ann Arbor will also be early receivers of the service. The entire county is expected to be covered by the end of 2007. Skratek said 20/20 expects the network will utilize 1700 nodes and 2400 radios when it is fully deployed.

Planning to spend up to $26 million on the project, 20/20 noted the service will deliver a mix of free and paid services to subscribers. A free service with speeds of about 84Kbps will be offered primarily in rural areas. Skratek said that speed is typically about four times faster than dial-up speeds available in most of the county's rural areas.

Higher speeds will be offered to county residents on a sliding scale of plans, generally from $35 to $50 a month depending on the speed and robustness of the service.

Many will ask why WiMax, the emerging wide area wireless technology, wasn't used.

"WiMax is in its infancy stage at best," said Skratek. "WiMax on the public 2.4Ghz and 5.7GHz frequencies is extremely susceptible to interference." He noted that the spectrum is also expensive to purchase, which would have raised prices for consumers. Another reason for choosing Wi-Fi, he added, is that many county residents are already using the technology in their homes and offices.