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Scott Zimmer (right), president of the Frankenmuth-based Air Advantage, speaks at a Nov. 2 press conference at Red Knapp’s American Grill announcing free wireless internet service in downtown Oxford. Listening is Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
November 07, 2012 - The long wait is finally over and downtown Oxford now has free wireless internet access thanks to a public-private partnership between Oakland County and Air Advantage.

"This is the very first downtown that we're going to light up with free wireless (service) here in the county," said Deputy County Executive and Chief Information Officer Phil Bertolini during a Nov. 2 press conference held at Red Knapp's American Grill (2 N. Washington St.).

"I think because we live in such a connected society, in order for downtowns to remain viable, people need to be connected," said Scott Zimmer, president of Air Advantage, the Frankenmuth-based company providing the service.

"If families are going to come up here, take a break and enjoy the downtown ambience, mom or dad need to be able to be connected with what's going on back at the office. It's just the reality of today."

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Mounted on the front of the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum (1 N. Washington St.), the wireless access point is now providing free internet service along M-24 a quarter-mile north and south of Burdick St. It's also providing some limited service along the east and west sides of Burdick St.

"We've got a mix of the old, with the museum, and the new, with the Wi-Fi," said Oxford Village Manager Joe Young, who's looking forward to this service helping the downtown area become "more vibrant."

"This is just another opportunity for our business owners to become even more competitive," said Madonna Van Fossen, director of the Oxford Downtown Development Authority. To her, the availability of free wireless internet access will help provide a "level playing field" for downtown businesses and "increase the (use of) social media marketing."

People who are walking along M-24 or sitting outside will receive the strongest wireless signal.

"Which is great if you've got your smartphone and you want to look something up quickly, but you don't want to use the 4G network because that costs you money," said Dave Simmet, vice president of operations for Air Advantage.

However, folks in places like Centennial Park might find obtaining a connection to be a bit trickier.

"I actually went down there and sat with my laptop," Simmet said. "For a little while, I was surfing the web in the gazebo. But then, the connection was lost."

The wireless signal has a difficult time going through all the buildings between the museum and the park. Most downtown buildings are made of brick, a dense material that tends to weaken or block the signal.

Simmet said "the best thing to do" would be to install another wireless access point near the park and that's something the village might wish to consider doing in the future.

"If this is successful, the village may say, 'We need to expand this because we want it to be even more successful,'" Zimmer said.

The village could either pay for a second wireless access point downtown or if the municipality's offer to allow Air Advantage to place its equipment atop the water tower on S. Glaspie St. proves useful to the company, installing another device could be part of the negotiations.

"One of the beauties of being a small organization is we like to barter," Zimmer said.

"We're open to that," Young said.

Federal funds equal rural access

Air Advantage currently provides high-speed, wireless internet service to Michigan's Thumb Area.

Thanks to a $64.2 million grant and loan via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 awarded in September 2010, Air Advantage is in the process of expanding its competitively-priced broadband services to northern and western Oakland County as well as areas in 12 other counties.

"There's about 600,000 residents in those 13 counties," Zimmer said. "Our charge is to bring broadband with speeds greater than 5 (megabytes) to those areas."

Zimmer said the federal funds "afforded us the ability to try to bridge the digital gap between the haves and the have-nots."

"Our award was very specific to rural areas. The United States Department of Agriculture wanted to make sure that rural areas were not being left behind (when it comes to broadband services)," he said. "Today, all of us have smartphones, we have iPads – internet (has become) more of a necessity than a luxury."

To help in its efforts to expand its customer base, the company's been given access to strategically-placed, county-owned radio towers. This was done with a county tower in Addison Township, where Air Advantage began selling and providing its broadband services last fall.

"We've probably got 20 to 25 customers on that tower," Simmet said. "Addison's got some challenges. There's a lot of trees in Addison (which interferes with signal reception). We're continuing to look at that tower to see if there's things we can do to get more customers off of it. Obviously, the more customers we get, the better. We've had a fair number that have called us and we just couldn't get a signal out there. That's the unfortunate nature of wireless."

Air Advantage's service area has definitely grown by leaps and bounds in a short amount of time.

"When we started our project a little over a year ago, we had about 60 towers in our network. Today, we have over 150 – several of those in Oakland County," Zimmer noted.

When the project's complete, Air Advantage is looking to have its equipment on 15-20 towers in Oakland County. Three of the towers are owned by the county, six by local municipalities and the rest by private entities.

"It's probably fair to say that half of the towers that we will be on will be part of this (Wireless Oakland) initiative," said Zimmer, referring to the county and municipal-owned infrastructure.

Lighting up downtowns

In exchange for access to government-owned towers, the company struck a deal with Oakland to offer free wireless internet services to select downtown areas. Oxford, Clarkston and Holly were to be the very first.

"Clarkston will be the next one – depending on the weather this winter," Simmet said. "We have the clearance to get on the Independence Township tower, so we're hoping to be on that within the next four to six weeks. Once that's done, we start the conversations with Clarkston to figure out where exactly they want (the wireless access point mounted in the downtown) . . . You've got to find a building owner that's willing to do it."

The tower that's providing downtown Oxford with free wireless service is actually owned by a private company called American Tower, based in Boston, Massachusetts. The 285-foot tower is located about 3 miles north of the village at 2255 Metamora Rd.

In addition to enabling downtown Oxford to receive free wireless access, this private tower is giving Air Advantage the opportunity to sell and provide broadband internet services to customers living in northern Oxford Township.

Delays from above

When the announcement was originally made about free wireless internet coming to downtown Oxford, the public was told it would be operational by fall 2011.

"That was certainly the goal," Zimmer said.

Unfortunately, the federal government delayed that from happening, according to Zimmer.

"We really started in earnest in January of this year," he explained. "It took the federal government 15 months to cross all the t's and dot all the i's.

"There were two awarding agencies of the ARRA money. The Commerce Department (was one and) their oversight has been very minimal. The Agriculture Department has been very diligent in their oversight. That's why it took us 15 months to get going. . . . (The Agriculture Department was) really overwhelmed. They had about 60 staff people to process 300 loans . . . Nothing against them. It was just too many."

The work on the county tower in Addison got done so quickly because Air Advantage had already got moving on it in January 2011 under the "shovel-ready program."

"In July, (the federal government) sent us a letter that said, 'Wait, we're slowing this process down. Give us some time,'" Zimmer explained. "It took from July 1 until Dec. 23 (2011) to get those kinks worked out."

Wireless Oakland lives

The deal with Air Advantage was originally announced by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson during his February 2011 State of the County address as part of a new scaled-down version of his Wireless Oakland initiative.

The concept of Wireless Oakland was first announced back in 2005. The idea was for private investors to bring wireless internet access to all 910 square miles of the county without using any taxpayer funds.

"It was an ambitious project, no question about it. We were going to wire the whole county," Patterson said. "A couple of investors were prepared to put up to $1 million to make it happen."

But when "the economy turned sour" in 2008-09, these investors backed out of the project. "I don't blame these private investors for looking at the deal and saying, 'This is not the right time for me to put that much money at risk for a deal that had yet to be really tested and proven,'" Patterson said.

Despite this setback, Patterson indicated the idea of Wireless Oakland never died.

"We never stopped looking for the opportunity to bring wireless (internet access) to those areas that are under-served," he said. "And we came across Air Advantage."

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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