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Posted on Sun, Aug 23, 2009 : 5:12 a.m.

Entrepreneurial disruption drives Ann Arbor area wireless success

By Nathan Bomey

Entrepreneurialism is about disruption.

Disrupting entrenched technologies, cultures and business practices.

So imagine the resigned amusement of 100 entrepreneurs gathered in a University of Michigan auditorium Tuesday when they were told that the wireless Internet would be provided by …

Wireless Ypsi.

Now, it’s only responsible to point out that U-M does provide wireless Internet access to its students and employees.

But much of the crowd at tech activist Dug Song’s Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup did not have a U-M account.

Wireless Ypsi has leveraged existing technology to broaden Web access emanating from Internet service providers that allow their signals to be shared.

The company, using Meraki mesh radios, has created a free Web cloud throughout the entire downtown Ypsilanti area. The company’s main objective, however, is to offer its services to real estate managers, downtown agencies and other crowded areas seeking reasonable Web access solutions.

The company, which boasts nearly 30,000 users, has signed a deal to provide Internet access to all properties of Ann Arbor-based Shaffran Companies, as I reported this summer. And founder Ed Shaffran told me his tenants are more than pleased.

Wireless Ypsi’s success after 18 months in business - co-founder Steve Pierce says the company is already turning a profit - generates inevitable friction with another local wireless provider: Wireless Washtenaw.

Wireless Washtenaw, a five-year-old collaborative effort designed to extend Internet access to the entire county, is requesting $4 million from the federal economic stimulus package to boost the project.

20/20 Communications, the Ann Arbor-based ISP that manages Wireless Washtenaw, has invested more than $2 million of its own money on the project, which has 600 daily rural users but is not turning a profit.

20/20 co-owner Debbie Petersen told me that Wireless Washtenaw was “a diversion” from the company’s core objectives as an ISP and cell phone services retailer.

Wireless Washtenaw isn’t necessarily doomed, however. National news sources reported that most major network companies weren’t expected to pursue $4.7 billion in broadband grants from the stimulus package. That would leave the door open for smaller companies like 20/20.

20/20 President Bob Wolff told me he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Wireless Washtenaw’s application would be successful.

Whether the company’s application finds a welcome audience, though, may rest on whether its strategies are genuinely disruptive.

You can e-mail’s Nathan Bomey at, call him at (734) 623-2587 or follow him on Twitter.