By the end of the year, Ann Arbor residents will be able to walk outside, boot up their computers and log onto the Internet for free.

Christina Choi
A wireless Internet transmitter near the Michigan Union. The transmitters are being installed by 20/20 Communications, which is working to build a wireless network for all of Washtenaw County. (BENJI DELL/Daily)

Wireless Washtenaw, a $26-million project that would give a free wireless Internet to all of Washtenaw County, came closer to completion this month as 20/20 Communications, the project’s Internet service provider, finished testing wireless networks in three cities – Saline, Manchester and Ann Arbor.

The wireless signal is designed not to be available indoors, though.

Although the wireless signal might penetrate some buildings, it won’t be strong enough to be used inside most buildings, said Andy Palms, the University’s information technology communications director.

Technicians need to make sure that the wireless network doesn’t interfere with existing wireless networks before the company can launch the service, said Dan Skratek, Wireless Washtenaw project manager from 20/20.

The company aims to go live with limited wireless service by May or June.

James McFarlane, a project manager of Wireless Washtenaw, said the company is now looking for buildings and towers at least 80 feet high throughout the county it can use as mounting points for wireless transmitters.

But some municipalities – particularly those in rural areas – don’t have obvious places for transmitters.

Although that has posed a problem for the company, McFarlane said he expects service to be available throughout the county by the end of the year.

Skratek said existing wireless providers could be concerned about service interference because they want their signals to remain dominant. Washtenaw County’s agreement with 20/20 stipulates that the wireless signal will not penetrate more than a few feet into buildings, Skratek said.

Although 20/20 and the University are still discussing who will provide wireless to campus outdoor areas – like the Diag – not currently serviced by University wireless, the University’s existing wireless network will not be replaced, Palms said.

The Ann Arbor area pilot group included some areas of campus. There are now wireless transmitters at intersections on State Street between South University Avenue and Huron Street.

Because the technology has not been launched, though, only students involved in the pilot program can access the wireless service.

The project is being funded solely by 20/20 and private investors, but it has an agreement with Washtenaw County. The company has not received money from the city of Ann Arbor or the Washtenaw County government. It plans to make money by selling faster service.

Once the service is launched, anyone with a wireless-enabled computer will be able to use wireless at a speed of 84 kilobytes per second for free. Skratek said the service is slow but fine for checking e-mail or using search engines.

“The free service isn’t a great service, but it does provide access,” he said.

A faster service, running at 500 kilobytes per second, will be available for $35 per month through 20/20.

Skratek said the service’s biggest competition comes from companies that sell wireless cards that use cellular signals to provide Internet access.

Wireless Internet access using one of Verizon Wireless’s cards costs at least $60 per month.

Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Michelle Gilbert said the company is not fazed by Washtenaw County’s wireless program.

She said her company’s service offers a more secure connection and is available in more places – including indoor locations.

Rackham student Carolyn Gersh said she wouldn’t use the wireless service.

“I know plenty of people that would find it useful,” she said. “But I don’t know if I would use it outside.”

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