Parks wouldn't seem like an obvious choice for a wireless hook-up, but it makes perfect sense to the people at Wireless Ypsi. The free-Internet collective has spread into Ypsilanti's Riverside Park and is looking to do the same in Frog Island Park later this month.
"If you're working downtown and want to take a break, it's a great place to go and work," says Steve Pierce, a co-founder of Wireless Ypsi. "It's like being in college and asking the professor, 'Can we go outside today?'"
Pierce adds that a temporary wireless hook-up in the parks last year allowed vendors at the Elvisfest to track a storm and smartly postpone the festival instead of canceling it outright.
Wireless Ypsi is free community-based Internet access system has spread well beyond its original boundaries of downtown Ypsilanti. It now covers points all over Washtenaw and Wayne counties and continues to spread. About 600-800 people a day are logging onto the system.
The initiative was founded by Pierce and Brian Robb, who run it more like a non-profit than a business. They use Meraki technology to supply the free Wi-Fi. The Google-funded start up uses off-white transmitters that look like a child's walkie talkie to connect Internet hot spots at local businesses, institutions and homes. The transmitters use the extra bandwidth from the hot spots to create a mesh-like net of Wi-Fi coverage.
Similar systems are spreading in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego. More than 250,000 different people have logged onto San Francisco’s Meraki network, which covers large sections of the city and has the goal of reaching every neighborhood.
The now one-year-old Wireless Ypsi expanded its footprint into downtown Ann Arbor last week, with the addition of a wireless Internet access point at Eastern Accents on South Fourth Avenue.
The free high-speed wireless Internet system also has access points along Plymouth Road on Ann Arbor's north side and in Whitmore Lake, with plans to expand more in Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township and along Jackson Avenue into Scio Township.
"We want to see how big we can make the network ... with thousands of people using it every day and doing it cooperatively," said Steve Pierce, who co-founded Wireless Ypsi with Ypsilanti City Council member Brian Robb.
Pierce owns Internet consulting and Web services business HDL, which manages the Wireless Ypsi system.
Wireless Ypsi launched in January 2008 as a way to provide free wireless Internet access mainly around downtown Ypsilanti. The system uses San Francisco-based Meraki Network's hardware.
It works like this: Meraki's access boxes, called nodes or radios, are placed in various places around Ypsilanti, including Haab's Restaurant, the Ypsilanti Food Co-op and Congdon's Ace hardware. One or more businesses connect their node to an Internet connection - which they pay for through their own Internet service provider - and then their Internet signal bounces between other nodes to create a wireless web.
Anyone within that web who has a computer with wireless access should be able to log onto the Internet, for free. The nodes cost between $150 and $200 to buy.
When it started, Wireless Ypsi had 15 access points. Now, it has more than 150 access points covering nearly two miles of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area. Nearly 13,000 people have used the service, including about 500 daily users.
Pierce said Wireless Ypsi has also expanded into Eastern Michigan University, apartment buildings, a senior center and soon could available in public and subsidized housing through a collaboration with the Ypsilanti Housing Commission.
He hopes to make the Internet accessible in places like Riverside Park or Frog Island Park through the use of solar-powered nodes.
Wireless Internet systems based on the model of Wireless Ypsilanti were also launched last year in Dearborn, Trenton and Lincoln Park.
"We want to make money by helping other communities to do this, but we are doing it here to give back to the community," Pierce said.
The Wireless Ypsi model is different from that of Wireless Washtenaw, in that the Ypsi system is a cooperative, networked system that relies on the goodwill of businesses willing to share their Internet access. Currently, the Ypsi system is primarily clustered in business districts and other high-density areas.
Wireless Washtenaw, on the other hand, has a goal of bringing Internet access to rural residences. Where it is currently available, users pay a subscription fee to use the high-speed service; a lower-speed service is available for free.
Contact Stefanie Murray at email@example.com or 734-994-6932.
Wireless Ypsi celebrated its first year Sunday.
Ypsilanti residents Steve Pierce and Brian Robb started Wireless Ypsi in January 2008 with the goal of bringing free broadband wireless access to Ypsilanti and surrounding communities.
Wireless Ypsi is a collaboration between local residents and business owners to leverage local infrastructure in order to provide broadband wireless access to Ypsilanti. Wireless Ypsi uses San Francisco-based Meraki Network's hardware to provide a free community wireless Internet service.
Since last year, Wireless Ypsi has topped 12,750 users and 6.5 terabytes.
Terabytes are the unit of measurement to describe the amount of data moved across the network. There are 1 trillion bytes, or 1000 gigabytes, in a terabyte.
"That’s a freaking lot of data moved around in a single year," Pierce said/
The network initially started with 15 access points around the community. Since then, it has grown to over 150 access points and covers nearly two miles of Ypsilanti and the surrounding area.
"The numbers are amazing,” Pierce said. “Over 500 people a day are using Wireless Ypsi."
Robb said he is amazed by the number of people frequenting Downtown and Depot Town who are bringing computers into shops and restaurants to work and visit.
“Wireless Ypsi has demonstrated that Ypsilanti is part of Washtenaw County's high-tech culture,” Robb said. “Free Internet access is just one more reason to come visit Ypsilanti.”
In its second year, Wireless Ypsi expects to double its service again, expanding coverage into Riverside and Frog Island Parks as well as working with the Ypsilanti Housing Commission and area agencies to provide coverage for hundreds of residents in at-risk neighborhoods.
Pierce said he hopes by this time next year Wireless Ypsi will have all the Housing Commission properties set up with free Internet. He said he is most excited about the Housing Commission project and helping to facilitate Internet education for low-income families.“There are literally thousands of people in Ypsi, that for a variety of reasons can’t or don’t know how to use the Internet,” he said.
Wireless Ypsi also plans to go after some grant money from the State in the new year to purchase four solar powered wireless nodes for the Ypsilanti community.
Wireless Ypsi networks have also been started in Dearborn, Lincoln Park, and Trenton as well as Wayne County's Elizabeth Park. Pierce said Downtown Ann Arbor and Whitmore Lake are the most recent communities to host a Wireless Ypsi node.
It seems that most people have the same attitude about wireless web access that they do about Internet search engines –-they expect it to be free.
Not an easy business model to work with. Recent wireless Internet (aka Wi-Fi) enterprises like Wireless Washtenaw just don't have the same drive that community-based initiatives like Wireless Ypsi do.
Wireless Washtenaw (which offers slower speeds of Wi-Fi for free and higher speeds for a price) recently increased its coverage area to the southwest side of the county, adding four rural townships as well as limited (pilot phase) sections of Ann Arbor, Saline and Manchester. However, 20/20 Communications, which is heading up the initiative, has pushed back its overall goal of achieving coverage for the entire county to late this fall, a year later than expected.
Progress yes, but it doesn't have nearly the momentum Wireless Ypsi has achieved. The initiative, which is run more like a non-profit than a business, blankets all of downtown Ypsilanti with Wi-Fi, is expanding to Depot Town this month and is helping similar initiatives start in other Washtenaw County city centers.
"It's a community network," says Steve Pierce, one of the co-founders of Wireless Ypsi. "Part of the message for Brian (Robb, the other co-founder) and me is to evangelize the technology. This is good for downtown and Ypsi."
The Wireless Ypsi folks have found a way that makes it look easy to set-up free, high-speed Wi-Fi while so many other higher profile initiatives have floundered. Efforts to set up Wi-Fi businesses in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia have ground to a halt or are at best struggling.
"They got a lot of press when they got started for their grandiose plans," says Edward Tracy, associate vice president for Information Technology at the University of Detroit Mercy. "And there has been a lot of let down."
From a business standpoint, yes, but high-speed Wi-Fi is still the mode of choice to surf the Net for many. And so the need for access remains.
Ypsilanti's Wi-Fi epiphany began late last year when Pierce and Robb decided they wanted to surf the web while eating at one of their favorite downtown restaurants. After a little brainstorming they realized the infrastructure and technology to set up free Wi-Fi downtown was practically at their fingertips.
All they needed was a little initiative, which was not a problem for the pair of community activists. Pierce recently ran for mayor and operates the Ypsi News blog that reports stories and broadcasts city meetings. Robb also recently ran for city council (he won while Pierce lost) and writes the East-Cross blog.
Meraki is the technology that makes Wireless Ypsi possible. The Google-funded start up uses off-white transmitters that look like a child's walkie talkie to connect Internet hot spots at local businesses, institutions and homes. The transmitters use the extra bandwidth from the hot spots to create a mesh-like net of Wi-Fi coverage.
Each transmitter runs about $50, which is an amazing deal when you consider that larger, less efficient units ran $1,800 only a few years ago. "The technology has finally caught up with what people want to do," Pierce says.
At the beginning of this year, Pierce and Robb started talking to downtown business owners about putting one of the transmitters in their windows. They now have 17 downtown businesses participating that either share their bandwidth or act as a relay station so people can enjoy free Internet speeds of about 1.5 megabytes or about the speed of DSL or T1 connections.
So far it's working well in a place like Ypsi. Although the Meraki technology probably wouldn't work in a spread-out rural setting (a transmitter's range is at best 600 feet) it fits in well in a dense, urban setting conducive to sharing.
"Bandwidth is a hot commodity," Tracy says. "It's generous for them to do that."
They are working with local residents and city leaders to expand the coverage area to Riverside and Frog Island parks and the surrounding neighborhoods. They hope to eventually spread the network throughout the city, especially to low-income housing buildings so high-speed Internet access can be available to everyone.
'There are far too many people in the county who have to depend on dial-up,' Pierce says. 'We have to change that.'
People power versus profits
That sentiment kind of sums the so-called business model of Wireless Ypsi, which is run more like Craigslist than Google. While Metro Detroit’s other Wi-Fi initiatives are centered on signing up customers to subscriptions to establish profit margins, Wireless Ypsi is based on the idea of a community network.
Participants pay for transmitters out of their own pockets while Robb and Pierce manage the system from their laptops. They troubleshoot the network and make sure people logged on aren’t hogging bandwidth. Serial offenders are warned and eventually banned. The idea is anyone who gets out of hand will run out of network cards before the administrators run out of time.
"We want to share," Pierce says. "Don’t be a jerk about it. This is a shared network. Be reasonable."
Plenty of people are finding it reasonable. The network has 500 unique computers logging on to it within its first six weeks. Pierce and Robb hope to top 1,000 by the end of the month since people wishing to log on don’t have to buy a subscription, give a password or even sign up.
Similar systems are spreading in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego. More than 50,000 different people have logged onto San Francisco’s Meraki network, which covers large sections of the city and has the goal of reaching every neighborhood. Other initiatives to spread Wi-Fi in the Bay area have not met with as much success.
Metro Detroit's other wireless initiatives are fighting for their own success. While Wireless Oakland covers parts of six major population centers and is logging 60,000 sessions per week as of last fall, it’s dealing with a number of investor issues. Wireless Macomb is also trying to attract new investors after setting up its pilot phase in Mt. Clemens. It recently switched companies to head up the effort.
The wireless initiatives in Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties are all at least several months if not years away from reaching their goals of covering their respective counties. Ambitious goals that are shared with many other metropolises across the country that local efforts are still struggling to achieve.
In the mean time, free high speed Wi-Fi is limited to coffee shop and library hot spots, another area Detroit lags in compared to other big cities. JiWire, a San Francisco-based Wi-Fi advertising firm, indicates that the Motor City is way behind in the race for Wi-Fi connectivity.
The Web site says that Detroit proper has 51 hot spots, compared to 54 for Sterling Heights and 71 for Birmingham. Even Ann Arbor, the closet thing Metro Detroit has to a Silicon Valley, has 82. In comparison, Denver has 182, Chicago 630 and San Francisco 1,031. Although this is an unscientific count of Wi-Fi connections it gives us an inkling about where we stand in the race for the preferred way to surf the Web.
Are we going to be at a point in the near future where wires will be largely non-essential for personal Web browsing? Possibly, UofD Mercy's Tracy says, but it's something we'll have to wait and see if the technology catches up.
"If you put a time line on it we could have a whole different ball game in 10 years," Tracy says.
A happy little band of Internet bandwidth techies in Ypsilanti aren't waiting for free Wi-Fi, wireless Internet, to come to them. They're using cutting edge technology to create it.
Welcome to the Wireless Ypsi project where a few local residents and business owners are taking Internet access by the horns and making it available to Ypsilanti's downtown, Depot Town and beyond.
"So you can go to your favorite restaurant, bar or park and pop open your laptop and be on the Internet for free," says Steve Pierce, one of the principals of Wireless Ypsi. "The feedback we have received has just been fabulous."
Wireless Ypsi, which began in January, provides wireless Internet at speeds of about 1.5 megabytes or about the speed of DSL or T1 connections. The company, which is run more like a non-profit, uses Meraki technology to connect Internet hot spots at local businesses, institutions and homes to create a mesh-like net of Wi-Fi coverage. Similar systems are being set up in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and San Diego.
So far the system has an average of 60 to 70 users each day and about 500 unique computers that log on with some form of regularity. Wireless Ypsi is expanding its coverage area to Depot Town this month and is expected to extend to nearby neighborhoods within a few months or even weeks.
Getting on the internet in downtown Ypsilanti is now a whole lot easier and a whole lot cheaper. A group called Wireless Ypsi is offering free Internet access along Michigan Avenue.
Wireless Ypsi was started by Ypsilanti City Council member Brian Robb, D — Ward 3, and local entrepreneur and Ypsilanti resident Steve Pierce. They began working on the project around the turn of the year.
"We were sitting around between Christmas and New Year's, bemoaning the fact that some of our favorite restaurants didn't have wireless Internet access," Pierce said.
Pierce, who owns a Web hosting business, had several unused routers in his basement.
He gave several of the routers to Robb, "Robb and another guy walked around on New Year's Eve, asking businesses if they'd like to be involved." Pierce said.
The network, which currently extends from Huron Street to Hamilton Street, wasn't built around a standard business model.
"It's a community network," Pierce said. "Not a for-profit model."
"It's community-based," Robb said in a Wireless Ypsi press release. "Everyone has ownership in the network and thus has an interest in its success."
Those involved believe the network will make Ypsilanti more attractive to visitors and new businesses.
"Free wireless Internet access can provide a competitive advantage over surrounding communities," Robb said.
"This sends the message that Ypsilanti gets it," Pierce said. "It is a benefit to businesses, visitors, and residents of downtown."
Several Ypsilanti businesses are taking part in Wireless Ypsi and have had wireless routers placed in or on their buildings. Andrew Muth, senior partner at Muth & Shapiro, P.C., said, "a friend asked me if I could donate a window and I said sure."
Victor Swanson, EMU graduate student and owner of Biggie's Fine Foods, also had a router placed in his business.
"It's something good we can provide for our customers," Swanson said. "We hope it brings in more students."
There are two types of routers used by Wireless Ypsi, both built by a company called Meraki, based in California. Each router connects to another, creating a 'mesh network' across downtown Ypsilanti. The network, according to Pierce, is self-healing. If one router malfunctions, other routers in the network will mesh with the remaining routers.
While some users may be concerned with data protection, Pierce noted the Meraki routers do provide users with "pretty reasonable security."
"The routers isolate traffic," Pierce said. "When you connect, you can't see other computers on the network."
Pierce added the free connection is not intended to be used as a primary Internet connection.
"We aren't acting like 'Big Brother', but we are monitoring the network to make sure people aren't downloading too much," Pierce said. "Be reasonable; don't ruin it for everyone else."
While the network is currently confined to the downtown area, there are plans to cover more of Ypsilanti.
"Our next goal is to go into Depot Town," Pierce said. "We also want to get more coverage in the Riverside area."
YPSILANTI, MI 2008-02-04 Ypsilanti's downtown business district is now a free wireless internet hot spot, thanks to the efforts of a group called 'Wireless Ypsi'. Click on the audio icon to hear more from WEMU's Bob Eccles.
Unlike its larger countywide counterpart, Wireless Ypsi is up and running.
And credit goes to a $1,200 investment, research and good old pavement pounding from residents Brian Robb and Steve Pierce.
"Most of the time, when you don't have institutional involvement, things happen much quicker," Robb said. "We didn't need committees, we didn't need an advisory board, we didn't need anything. ... Seriously, in three weeks, we've done what (Wireless Washtenaw has) promised to do for four years."
The free network, which covers several blocks of downtown Ypsilanti along Michigan Avenue, uses new "mesh" technology from California company Meraki. Several local businesses - including Pub 13, TC's Speakeasy and the Tap Room - house the main routers and provide the bandwidth. The signals are then bounced back and forth through mini-routers located at other area businesses.
The bounced signals form a wireless network anyone can use, similar to the Wi-Fi service already available at many cafes. The beauty of the technology is anyone can mount a mini-router for a one-time cost of $50 to extend the network, Robb said. Meraki already has more than 50,000 users on its San Francisco free network, with residents and businesses mounting the routers.
"Basically, if you can plug this into a wall, you can make your own wireless network," Robb said. "As long as you know which end of the plug is polarized, you're a certified engineer."
Robb and Pierce started approaching local business owners on New Year's Eve, asking if they would contribute $50 to mount a mini-router and participate in the network.
Mike Kabat, owner of Haab's Restaurant on Michigan Avenue, said he was happy to join.
"Steve just came in one day and said, 'Would you like to do it?' and we said, 'Wonderful!'" Kabat said. "We often have people come in for a single lunch, and they have a laptop with them, and now they can get on the Internet for free."
The network averages about 50 users at any given time, and 290 individual users have logged on since its inception. Nine downtown merchants have mini-routers, and six sponsors supply the main routers and pay for the bandwidth.
Robb said he hopes to expand the network to cover Depot Town, local parks and a larger area downtown.
Wireless Washtenaw, the countywide effort, announced last week that it had taken a step forward by expanding service to a 28-square-mile area in southwestern Washtenaw County. But the project - which also covers one square mile in both downtown Ann Arbor and Saline - has been indefinitely delayed because of trouble attracting investors and getting government loans.
Jordan Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-994-6679.
In the wake of EarthLink's retreat from the market and a general absence of vendor partners willing to foot the bill to build out free city-wide networks, it seems that more and more cities are finding Meraki Networks’ community-based approach attractive. The latest is Ypsilanti, Michigan, which will use the Meraki model to provide free wireles Internet access to residents and tourists downtown.
The downtown service, announced this week, is a result of the efforts of Wireless Ypsi and the largesse of the downtown business owners what will sponsor the service.
Wireless Ypsi hopes that the project will demonstrate how wireless broadband can support economic development by attracting new companies to the city and that it will make the Internet more accessible to tourists and local residents. No news there. Those are the motives behind most muni Wi-Fi launches. What I find so interesting about this deployment is its use of Meraki’s technology to build out the mesh from the central downtown area. According to Wireless Ypsi’s press release "with enough community involvement, they hope to spread it throughout the neighborhoods" using a community-based business model.
This essentially is the plan in San Francisco where Meraki itself announced plans to build out a Wi-Fi cloud after a proposed city partnership with EarthLink collapsed.
Click here to read the press release.
Don't look now, but Ypsilanti has gone wireless.
A community collective of residents and business owners have begun providing free broadband Internet access with the mission of bridging the digital divide and help everyone gain access to technology and the Internet.
The project was begun by Ypsilanti residents and activists Kevin Hill, Steve Pierce and Brian Robb. Seventeen businesses have joined the downtown network in the past two weeks.
Working with $1,200 in seed money, the men began the network of wireless providers and radios that allow access from many downtown locations.
The Ypsi Wireless project has already attracted a great number of providers and customers as this map details the downtown Ypsilanti area where the radio signals are broadcast are and how many users are on that particular provider.
Partners in the venture include Robb, who also is a Ward 3 City Councilman; HDL, Inc., which is owned by Pierce; the Downtown Association of Ypsilanti, Dave Curtis, owner of Pub 13, Club Divine and The Best Damn Sports Bar Upstairs; Brian and Lisa Brickley, owners of The Tap Room; and Derrick Block, owner of TC's Speakeasy. These entities provide bandwidth to the network.
Sponsors, who provide the radios that repeat the signal and connect the network, include: John Coleman, owner of Look In The Attic; Gregory Batianis, owner of Wolverine Grill; Abe Asani, owner of Abe's Coney Island; Break Away Travel; Mike Kabat, owner of Haab's Restaurant; Jeff Foust, owner of Liquid Swordz; Victor Swanson, owner of Biggie's Fine Foods; Don Britton & Paul Shemon, owners of Congdon's ACE Hardware; Andrew Muth & Douglas Shapiro, owners of Muth & Shapiro PC; and attorney Steve Jentzen.
Robb explained that the radios are purchased, at cost, by the business owners for $50 for an indoor unit and $99 for an outdoor unit. There is no further cost, such as a monthly subscription rate.
The collective's goal is to have the free access available in all of the downtown area, west to east from the fire station to River Street and north to south from Pearl Street to Ferris Street.
In addition, they want to ensure Depot Town is able to offer the same free Internet access, including in Riverside Park. Eventually, they would like to see the network extend into neighborhoods.
According to Robb, the free access is a draw to bring people to the city.
"Apartment owners can offer this service," he said. "Some already do. It's an attractive perk to living and working in Ypsilanti."
Swanson said the addition of the radio is already being felt in his restaurant, Biggie's Fine Foods, on N. Washington Street.
"We need it," he said. "It brings in more customers. I'm glad to be able to provide this service to the people. It makes the downtown more attractive to them."
The radios being used are manufactured by Meraki, a company on the cutting edge of the wireless movement, according to Robb. The company has another free network in San Francisco, California, that currently has gained more than 49,000 users in the past few months.
The system is easy and can be managed from anywhere, according to Robb. The businesses, by buying the radios, take ownership of their part of the network. As of press time, 208 people had already used the network, despite no publicity to alert them to its existence.
"People are ready and willing to get behind the right idea," Robb said, adding that he saw the network as a way of helping to heal some of the divisions within the city.
"This sends the message that Ypsilanti gets it," said Pierce. "It is a benefit to businesses, visitors, and residents of downtown. With SPARK coming to Smith Furniture building, Wireless Ypsi makes Ypsilanti more competitive and more desirable when it comes to attracting companies and their employees to our community."
Anyone interested in learning more about Wireless Ypsi may go to the Web site at wireless.ypsi.com.