Racine County Wi-Fi: providing access where it’s really needed

It’s easy to assume that city and county wireless broadband projects are dead and gone forever given the endless stream of negative news reports about municipalities putting their Wi-Fi projects on hold. But there are initiatives that hae been doing well. One of them is Racine County, Wisconsin. I spoke to Rob Richardson who is in charge of the county wireless broadband project to find out how this county wireless broadband project differs from the others.

(1) The focus is on bringing broadband to areas that don’t have it.

This is not your typical Wi-Fi project, where the city or county officials brag about giving free Wi-Fi to needy people or to “digital nomads”. The Racine County project wanted to address the lack of broadband in large areas of the county that have been ignored by the telecom incumbents and cable operators. Racine County lies between Milwaukee and Chicago, and much of it is sparsely populated. Not interesting for AT&T or Time Warner Cable. But everyone wants broadband so the county decided to partner with Evergent, an ISP, to provide fixed wireless (point-to-point) access to subscribers. The network uses Midwest Fiber’s network for backhaul. At present, they have 550 customers and cover 65-70% of the county (including the city of Racine as well as the communities of Raymond, Caledonia, Sturdevant, Waterford, Burlington and Mt. Pleasant. Evergent is expanding service to other parts of the county. As Rob Richardson pointed out, young professionals moving into the area don’t want mobile broadband, they want fixed broadband. T1 lines cost $2000 – $2500, which is a lot of money for individuals and businesses, but $150 a month for wireless broadband access is more affordable.

There has been a delay in rolling out the network because of the harsh winter they had this year in Racine. Now, Evergent can send out people to climb towers again and set up access points.

2. The county convinced the townships to rent out space on township assets (e.g. water towers) at less than cellular rates.

The county did an extensive study and worked early on with the communities (17 in total) to ensure that the business model for the ISP works. At first townships wanted to rent out space on towers at the rate that they charged cellular operators, but the county convinced them that this type of service (fixed wireless broadband) is different and that the rates that the townships wanted to impose were unreasonable. People in the townships want broadband desperately and part of creating good economic base in the townships is having broadband service.

3. No subsidies involved.

In this public-private partnership, the county is buying service from the Evergent. Evergent rents space on water towers and other assets owned by the county (and towns in the county). The county is not subsidizing the ISP, nor is it subsidizing broadband for low income families. Focus is just on getting broadband infrastructure rolled out in the county.

Where does Racine County go from here? They expect to have 100% coverage in the county by April 2009. Evergent acquired a service provider in Northern Illinois and as long as they get assets on which to mount their wireless nodes (water towers, grain elevators), they will most likely expand.

Summary

Every county and city must decide which model works for the community. Some places require public money to be spent on deploying infrastructure (wired and wireless); others don’t. There is no one model. I do not subscribe to the belief that public money must never be spent on these types of projects. A wireless (and wired) network is NOT a service. It is infrastructure. The services run on top of it. How a city, region or country encourages the deployment of infrastructure and the provision of services (plus competition on the services layer) depends on its culture, legal structure and determination in creating a climate of innovation. Sometimes you have to spend public money, sometimes you don’t.

Resources

To find out more about the Racine County wireless project, including studies and reports, go to:

www.racineco.com/largedocuments

Comments

  1. Now that’s a model for a sustainable business. You can’t hammer the new ISP for the mounting asset rental, and the ISP is probably going to provide some point to point backhaul for the county facilities, so its revenue neutral to the county, and it doesn’t kill the nascent ISP. Sensible people, most midwesterners are. Wish we had more of that on the east coast.

  2. Esme Vos says

    What I like about the Racine County project is that the county is focused and it’s targeting the rollout of broadband service where it’s needed most. If you are trying to do so many things are the same time, you won’t succeed in any of them.

    I’ve been running Muniwireless since 2003 and it’s the ones who keep it simple (in terms of their goals) that succeed.

    There are still so many rural areas in the US that desperately need broadband: the infrastructure (fiber, wireless) and the services. Racine County is trying to do its best to fulfill the demand for broadband.

  3. I agree the editorial in general. Even if it may be considered as civil infrastructure projects, service should be affordable for middle-class families. I’d like to see more state goverment involvement in this type of projects. Unless providing free access for rural residents (most likely blue collar families/farmers/middle class folks) or requiring the providers to provide free access, what goal we would accomplish at this point of economy recess? Certainly it will benefit certain business sectors but more meat and potato to the kitchen table wouldn’t be the idea in terms of practicality?

    In simple words, a golden, splendid bridge is about to be built but if commuters in need have to pay $150 each and every month, then what’s the point?

  4. I also wondered about how broadband can help farmers (not just certain business sectors) until I attended a European Union conference on bridging the broadband gap in May 2007 in Brussels. The EU’s broadband policy isn’t a standalone police, i.e. broadband for its sake alone. Rather, it is intertwined with an agricultural policy aimed at allowing farmers to share information in real time and to educate one another. They have created “agri-universities” in certain areas where farmers actually create and lead courses on various subjects in which they have expertise, for example, crop rotation, getting rid of pests, irrigation, and yes, even how to market certain types of organic products. With broadband, the farmers create their own content online and share it with others who view it also from distant locations. I think it’s a very intriguing way of organizing “learning” i.e. outside the universities and institutes. People teach one another and share information and broadband in rural areas is necessary in order for this to happen.

  5. Yes, that sounds very intriguing.

    Don’t you agree that the service should be more affordable than $150 per month?

  6. $150 is not affordable at all. $20 to $30 per month is better but only if the bandwidth is quite substantial. In some parts of rural France you can get 30 EUR per month broadband service that gives you 20 to 30 Mbps symmetrical. FTTH is being rolled out in non-urban locations in Europe.