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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Overcast
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Can you access me now?
City wireless network loses provider as it struggles to work out the kinks
A Mad City Broadband transmitter on the Capitol Square.
A Mad City Broadband transmitter on the Capitol Square.

Count Jesse Russell among those who are not impressed with Madison's Wi-Fi wireless system, which is supposed to offer Internet access throughout 10 square miles in downtown Madison.

'It seems the only places I can get a Mad City Broadband signal is while sitting in coffeehouses, but they have free Internet, so who cares,' says Russell, the technologically savvy co-founder of the blog Dane101.

'I lived for a year on Jenifer Street and I could not get the Mad City Broadband signal in my apartment. I now live on North Bedford and still get no signal. I can look out my window and see a box on a pole, but no matter how close I put my laptop to the window, no signal.'

Russell's experience isn't unique. Over the past year, 1,300 of about 2,000 people who tried to use the Wi-Fi network canceled their subscriptions to ResTech Services, one of two Internet service providers for the city Wi-Fi system.

On Wednesday, ResTech director Bryan Schenker announced that his company will no longer provide service after May 31.

'It hasn't been an area where we've seen a lot of growth,' says Schenker, adding that many customers who canceled had been frustrated by 'difficulties getting connected.'

Eve Galanter, a spokeswoman for Mad City Broadband, promised a 'major announcement about the future of the network in two to three weeks. She said that service for customers with the other Internet provider, Merrimac Communications, would continue without interruption.

Mad City Broadband, which launched the system in March 2006, says it has encountered a number of 'challenges' ' technological, geographical and even horticultural ' that interfere with its signal in some areas.

'The near west side is particularly challenging,' says Todd Anderson, Mad City Broadband technical project manager. 'From University Heights to the Vilas neighborhood, hills and mature trees block the signal.'

Having more access points would help, but the company cannot install them on existing utility poles in much of that area because the poles are old and not up to code.

Anderson says signals are stronger on most of the east side because utility poles are taller. 'On the west side, we can't do much about it until MGE replaces the poles.'

The signal, adds Anderson, can also be blocked by stone, concrete or brick. And a PC user will get better service than a Mac user at the same location because the wireless cards in Macintosh computers are less powerful.

To address these issues, Mad City Broadband offers a signal booster. That device may improve reception, but it costs $118, and users are tethered to it. A similar gizmo that creates an in-house wireless network costs $169.

In contrast, AT&T Internet offers a wireless gateway for $79.99, and customers who sign up for that service get a rebate that reduces the cost to about $30. And for those who sign on for higher-speed connections, at $24.99 a month or more, the gateway is free after the rebate. Charter offers a similar deal.

Anderson affirms that the competition has become intense: 'Other providers are matching our prices, and they are marketing directly to people in our service area with door tags' that advertise services and prices.

Mad City's service providers charge $24.95 a month ($14.95 for customers affiliated with the University of Wisconsin). AT&T, which has merged with SBC, and Charter now offer DSL connections for as little as $14.95 for slower-speed connections, which are still 10 times faster than a dial-up connection. They offer service that promises to match Mad City Broadband's speed of one-half to one Mbps (megabits per second) for $19.95. But these other providers can't give Internet access from more than a couple hundred feet from a customer's base station.

A more subtle form of competition comes from the ubiquitous free Internet access available in coffee shops, bookstores and libraries, and from bleeding wireless signals from businesses and houses where a wireless network is unprotected.

'I was getting free Internet from a neighbor for months,' one pirate surfer confesses, on condition of anonymity. 'It was great, but now it's got a password on it, and I'm back to the coffee shop to go online.'

Currently, Mad City Broadband signals can be found from Highland Avenue on the near west side to the Yahara River on the east side, and south along Park Street. It's also available at the airport, where visitors to the city can subscribe for a per-day rate.

According to Galanter, Madison is a pioneer in developing a citywide broadband system and a proving ground for the equipment, manufactured by Cisco Systems.

'It's all so new,' she says. 'Cisco is using our experience to continue to improve the technology. And Madison's approach is unique ' no two cities are thinking about it in the same way.'

Municipalities from coast to coast are experimenting with Wi-Fi systems. Many are still in the talking phase; others have implemented various kinds of wireless networks.

Seattle, ranked number one on Intel's list of the 100 Most Unwired Cities in 2005, has a system in place, but the service is apparently available in only a few hotspots.

In Fort Wayne, Ind., the city paid $60,000 to subsidize its system and make it available free to users in 15 hotspots in a 15-block area downtown. A January 2007 article from the Fort Wayne News Sentinel said the service is considered unreliable. 'Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't,' the paper reported.

In Madison, there was some talk about providing the service at no cost to users, but the city decided against using tax dollars to subsidize the network, says mayoral spokesman George Twigg. After early negotiations with AOL broke down, the city accepted a proposal from Cellnet Technology, an Atlanta-based company, to build the network. Mad City Broadband is a division of Cellnet.

'Because of the name, some people think this is like a city utility,' says Twigg. 'But the city's only investment has been some staff time.'

Mad City Broadband currently has no concrete plans to extend Wi-Fi beyond its current boundaries, although that remains a long-range goal.

'We get calls from people who want to know when they can expect to get it, but now the focus is on improving the service within the 10-square-mile service area,' Galanter says. 'We are assessing the market. The next phase may not be contiguous. It will depend on where the greatest demand is.'

Liaw says the next phase might be providing service in apartment and condominium buildings. But he agrees that's not an immediate goal.

'We want to provide the best quality service where we are before we expand,' he says. 'And with the improved technologies coming out, we don't know when that will happen.'

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