More than four years after Mayor Dave Cieslewicz announced his desire for a citywide wireless network to keep the city on the “cutting edge of technology,” the idea has yet to provide a reliable, mobile connection for web surfers.
In his 38-page “Healthy City” vision from 2004, Cieslewicz said a citywide Wi-Fi network was required to attract business travelers to downtown, make life easier for UW students and keep the city on the forefront of the wireless age.
But since Mad City Broadband created the network covering the core of the city, availability to users has been so inconsistent and weak in areas it has caused many to give up on the service and resort to other Internet service providers like Charter Communications.
Mad City Broadband created the wireless network as a private business venture and contracted two local Internet service providers in 2006 to sell the service to customers. ResTech and Merrimac Communications were the initial providers of the service, but ResTech did not renew its contract after the first year, leaving Merrimac as the only provider within the city.
According to ResTech Director Bryan Schenker, the availability of the network was unreliable, causing many customers to drop the service. Of the 2,000 people who originally signed up for the wireless service, about 1,300 cancelled within the first nine months, driving the company to concentrate on its other services, he added.
“We had a lot of difficulty keeping people happy with the service,” Schenker said. “Ethernet wiring is more reliable. We don’t lose customers.”
The signal for the network does not penetrate well into buildings made of concrete or brick, according to Merrimac General Manager Kirk Olson. Polarized windows and metal can also make it more difficult to get a signal inside.
Cieslewicz spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the mayor still supports Mad City Broadband’s efforts to make the city wireless. She said residents are only disappointed with the network because it has not grown as quickly as initially expected.
The Badger Herald took two laptop computers around Madison, one operating under Windows and one using Macintosh, to test signal strength in the areas Mad City Broadband serves.
Four of the spots tested were located in the Phase I zone of coverage that should receive a strong signal, according to Mad City Broadband. At James Madison Park on Gorham Street, neither of the computers received the reception recommended — three out of five bars — to be able to access the network. The Windows laptop received two out of five bars, while the Mac detected zero bars.
Near Langdon and Carroll streets, the Mac was able to obtain three out of four bars while the Windows laptop detected one out of five bars.
A location near Camp Randall Stadium produced four out of five bars for the Windows laptop, while the Mac detected two out of four bars. Neither computer could get the majority of reception bars at the Park Village Apartments near the corner of Park and Hughes Streets.
Two locations in areas that are supposed to receive inconsistent signals were also tested.
A few blocks west of Camp Randall yielded better reception while another zone on the East Side, at Williamson and Dickinson streets, the Windows laptop could not connect while the Mac had full reception.
According to Strauch-Nelson, Mad City Broadband plans to build up the network over the next few months, and Cieslewicz is excited about the possibilities for improvement. Strauch-Nelson added it is encouraging that the company has not folded yet and is still working to get better.
“The building of the network has gone slower than some expected, but it’s a cutting-edge project,” Strauch-Nelson said. “There’s not a proven business model for this sort of network.”
According to Eve Galanter, spokesperson for Mad City Broadband, the next step to grow the network is talking with Madison property management companies to increase the service to their properties.
Galanter said she is not concerned that problems caused by certain building materials would limit the growth of the network.
There are currently about 400 total indoor and outdoor transmitters, Galanter said, adding indoor transmitters are crucial for overcoming the problems associated with troublesome building materials.
Admitting Mad City Broadband experienced “some intermittent service issues” in the Langdon and Gorham areas in summer 2007, Galanter said the issues were addressed quickly and the service levels in those areas were increased.
When customers call to sign up for the service, Merrimac recommends that they not register if they receive less than three bars of reception in the areas they most use the Internet because they will have trouble accessing the network.
However, Galanter said if anyone in the coverage area has trouble getting the signal, they should call the Mad City Broadband office and technical support will work with them to fix the problem.