Wireless Washtenaw faces money woes

BY MICHELE NAROV
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 21, 2010

Wireless Washtenaw, a project that aims to bring wireless Internet access to sparsely populated areas of Washtenaw County, could be in jeopardy if necessary federal funding doesn’t come through.

Initiated in 2004, Wireless Washtenaw has begun the process of providing broadband coverage to areas that traditionally haven't had access to wireless Internet services. But without federal funding, the undertaking may soon collapse.

In addition to providing free web access within Washtenaw County, the project offers high-speed private access to residents for a monthly fee in order to cover the costs absorbed by 20/20 Communications — an Ann Arbor-based Internet provider that helped to privately fund the project.

Project Manager James McFarlane said much of Washtenaw County currently lacks a reliable option for residential high-speed Internet access.

“In a lot of the rural areas there are satellite and cable options, but they are expensive and their coverage is spotty,” he said. “In those areas, this (Wireless Washtenaw) is the primary choice of users.”

In order to complete the initiative, 20/20 Communications has begun seeking federal grant money in the first round of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“This particular funding proposal is for $4.2 million,” said McFarlane. “But it’s estimated that it will cost about $10 million to build out the remainder of the county.”

20/20 Communications, McFarlane said, plans on applying for subsequent rounds of funding for the project in the future.

Currently, the project only reaches 100 square miles out of the 720 miles it aims to serve. As a result, the initiative has only attracted 550 users — a number too low to yield a positive return on the investment or to sustain the project.

McFarlane said, since the initiative began in 2004, the project has adapted to advancements in technology and product availability. The efforts, he added, still remain hinged on acquiring federal aid.

“They’re using technology now that will penetrate further and have stronger signals,” he said. “Also, the circumference areas of the signal are larger, but again it all boils down to acquiring the funding to provide the technology.”

David Behen, vice president of Ann Arbor-based information integration company GDI Infotech, — and who has been involved with the Wireless Washtenaw project — said he believes the project stands a chance at gaining the federal funding needed for completion.

“I’m optimistic that the project will be chosen in one of the rounds for funding, and I think it can be a success,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see though.“

If the project does not receive federal funding, the company will have to reconsider its involvement, McFarlane said.

“I think 20/20 will have to sit down and re-examine their investment and their technology and see where else they want to go,” he said. “At this point, until other funding sources are identified and solidified, the project is on hold.”

Behen, also a former deputy administrator for Washtenaw County, said 20/20 Communications decided to take part in the project though most other Internet providers didn’t think they would profit from building infrastructure in the county.

“They want to have better service available, when others were just not willing to go into those poor rural areas yet,” Behen said.

The success of Wireless Ypsilanti — a competing wireless Internet project in the county — has also caused some to question the need for Wireless Washtenaw. McFarlane said, despite their similarities, the projects pursue separate goals.

“Though they’re both technologies that complement the area, Wireless Ypsi focuses on downtown Ypsi and downtown Ann Arbor,” he said. “Wireless Washtenaw focuses on the rural areas and outlying areas.”

Ed Shaffran, a member of the Wireless Washtenaw advisory board, said despite the availability of Wireless Ypsi, the project is definitely still a necessity.

Wireless Washtenaw’s advisory board is composed of representatives from various companies, public schools, colleges like the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University and members of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

“I don’t think there’s a question that there is still a need because of the remoteness of the area,” Shaffran said.