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Free internet coming to downtown – no, really


Air Advantage representatives explain coverage area, signal strength



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Kevin Radabaugh, tower maintenance supervisor for Air Advantage, figures out how to remove the old bank security alarm in order to mount a wireless access point atop the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum in downtown Oxford. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
October 03, 2012 - It's been 19 months since it was originally announced that free wireless internet service is coming to downtown Oxford, so residents and business owners alike should be pleased to learn that their wait is almost over.

The equipment is finally here and ready for installation atop the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum (1 N. Washington St.), owned by the village.

"We're planning for equipment installation at the end of this week," wrote Tammi Shepherd, chief of Land Management Technologies for Oakland County, in an Oct. 1 e-mail. "Next week, we'll be testing the service and (we) plan to formally announce service availability within the next few weeks once we've tested it and evaluated the service."

"I want to mention that during the testing phase, having the equipment installed doesn't necessarily mean the service will be available," she noted. "I wouldn't want people to be disappointed by thinking they can use the service just because the equipment's been hung. There could be times when (the) service is (or) isn't available while they test and work out any issues that may arise."

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On Sept. 28, representatives from the village, Oakland County and the Frankenmuth-based Air Advantage met at the museum to determine the best way to mount the wireless access point and provide it a constant source of electricity.

The device, which measures 18 inches in length and 14 inches in width, will be mounted on the front of the building (east side) facing M-24. It will replace what appears to be an old security alarm that once protected the building when it housed Oxford Savings Bank many years ago.

Back in February 2011, the county announced that Air Advantage – which currently provides high-speed internet service to Michigan's Thumb Area – was going to bring free wireless internet service to the historic downtown areas of Oxford, Clarkston and Holly.

The wireless signal will reach a radius of approximately 0.25 to 0.4 mile away from where the device is placed. The unit will provide speeds of up to 2 megabytes per user.

"The actual range and speed of the wireless internet service will vary based on obstructions, signal level and type of network card," according to the telecommunications agreement between the county and Air Advantage.

According to Dave Simmet, vice president of operations for Air Advantage, the wireless signal should cover users north and south of the device along M-24 (Washington St.) and even penetrate "a little bit" along E. Burdick St.

"If you're walking up and down M-24 with your smartphone trying to get a Wi-Fi signal, you're not going to have an issue," Simmet said.

People located in buildings across the street from the museum should also receive good coverage because the signal can penetrate glass windows as long as it's not safety glass.

"If they've got safety glass with wire mesh in it, you can forget it," said Wayne Eveland, who works in network operations for Air Advantage. "It almost kills (the signal) going through. It's the same thing with really dense, solid brick."

Solid objects can block or greatly diminish the signal. "It does penetrate through some walls and structures, but everything it goes through weakens it," Simmet explained.

"There's a lot of variables other than just the buildings," noted Eveland.

He mentioned how other wireless access points in the downtown could interfere with the hotspot being set up by Air Advantage.

"If they're right next to a building that has its own Wi-Fi (service) that's on the same channel as we're using, that could cause some interference issues," Eveland said. Downtown establishments that offer their own, separate wireless signals will "work against us in trying to deploy this type of system."

"The biggest challenge with wireless anything is interference," Simmet said.

"This access point has a few tricks up its sleeve (to combat interference)," Eveland said. "It does a lot of adaptive modulation to try and get around interference. If it detects something interfering – broadcasting on the same frequency – it wll actually stop transmission, wait for that to finish and then rebroadcast. It sends a wait signal out to clients.

"It tries a lot of electronic trickery to get around that sort of stuff. It's designed as a public Wi-Fi system. It's not a home router. It has a lot more going on."

Simmet said the free wireless service will be more accessible to users when they're outdoors as opposed to indoors.

But if a business owner, for example, wanted to offer this free public wireless service to customers inside his or her establishment, they could purchase and set up the necessary technology to rebroadcast the signal within their building.

"It's designed as a mesh-based system so other access points could be added to it," said Eveland. "So, if they wanted to put something in their building to repeat the main signal (emanating from the museum), they could do that. If there's a business that wanted to be part of this public Wi-Fi system, that's definitely a possibility."

A business owner could expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for one of these repeaters. That's relatively cheap compared to the wireless access point that Air Advantage will install on the museum. It normally retails for almost $7,000, according to Eveland.

Eveland explained how the Air Advantage's device will emit the wireless signal on two different frequencies, a 5 GHz and a 2.4 GHz. The former is for users who need less signal penetration (i.e. those who are outdoors), while the latter is for those who need greater penetration (i.e. users blocked by walls and buildings).

"The higher the frequency, the less penetration you get," he said.

Simmet indicated people in downtown's Centennial Park could encounter difficulties receiving a signal because the buildings surrounding the green space can obstruct it.

"I don't know if we're going to get that park completely (covered) or not," he said. "If we put another (wireless access point) across the street from the park, then you could sit in the park with your laptop or your smartphone and be all set."

Simmet noted the signal could "bounce off of something" and end up in the park. "You just won't know until you (activate it)," he said.

The wireless access point on the museum could be just the beginning for the free public system downtown, according to Simmet.

"We're going to put the first (wireless access point) up and if people like it, if the village wants, we could network another one or two to it and really expand (the coverage area)," he said. "You could cover the whole corridor if you wanted to.

"But let's get one up and see if people use it. We can monitor how many times people are logging in and start to get some idea of if they like it or not."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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