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Posted on Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 7:10 a.m.

Wireless Washtenaw program to file $4 million request for stimulus funding

By Nathan Bomey

The telecommunications firm that manages Washtenaw County's years-long wireless Internet initiative expects to file an application by Thursday for $4 million in funding from the federal economic stimulus package.

Bob Wolff, president of Ann Arbor-based 20/20 Communications, said he's been "pretty sequestered in a room" finalizing the details of the application on behalf of Wireless Washtenaw. The program, started in 2004 and backed by several municipalities, aims to provide high-speed wireless Internet access to the entire county.

But the program has stalled in recent years due to investor apprehension about the economic viability of municipal wireless initiatives. Wolff said 20/20 Communications has invested more than $2 million in the Wireless Washtenaw program, which is not profitable. The service -- for which the county provides infrastructure but not funding -- has some 600 daily rural users.

The Internet service provider hopes to tap a piece of $4.7 billion in grants allocated by the stimulus package to expansion of broadband Internet access. 20/20 is hoping for grant dollars or low-cost loans. Wolff said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the company's application would be successful.

The original broadband stimulus application deadline was Friday, but that was reportedly extended due to bureaucratic application difficulties.

"We were pretty much ready to go on Friday, but now that we’ve got some extra time we’re going back and doing some fine-tuning" to the application, Wolff said.

The company's application comes as Ypsilanti-based tech startup Wireless Ypsi has garnered the wireless spotlight by turning a profit less than two years after its inception. The company provides free wireless to downtown Ypsilanti as a community service, but it is signing for-profit deals with real estate companies to provide cheap Internet access in crowded areas. 20/20 and Wireless Ypsi say their services aren't competitors.

"Wireless Ypsi is not intended to do what Wireless Washtenaw ... intended to do," Wireless Ypsi co-founder Steve Pierce said recently.

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Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 10:39 a.m.

To the first poster, none of the two million dollars came from county funds. Those were 20/20 Communications private funds. The only public dollars that have gone towards the project is for staff time and legal help drawing up some contracts, which probably totals around 200k. Yes, other countries are way ahead in their broadband technically... but those countries are also denser and receive public dollars for deployment of technology. They view broadband as a service and mandatory for economics success; that attitude hasn't taken hold in the US where people still comment the Internet is only for porn or social networking without understanding it's true potential. Cellular broadband, to my knowledge, still limits how much data you can download per month. And, they don't easily sell the equipment to hookup a rural resident (unless you have a laptop). Speed depends on signal strength, and living in W Washtenaw County I can tell you signal strength is often one or two bars. I tried it, it's not that fast. Satellite is acceeptable for streaming applications, but it doesn't work for real-time activities because the signal goes up to space and then back down multiple times. The latency, they say, is about the same with dial-up. So, you have a significant lag from when you click something to when the data is processed on-screen.


Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 4:08 p.m.

I wonder whether rural broadband using 80211.a is a viable business model in Washtenaw County. So much depends on the density along with the sight-lines and distances to centralized access points. By point of comparison, satellite broadband, which has some inherent issues, charges about $60/month for 1Mbps download speeds. I wonder if it can compete? The fact that there are so few current subscribers is a strong indicator that either it's not viable or that 20/20 is doing a poor job. If it's not viable, I'm not certain a government-supported project is the best option. With rural electrification, there was no other viable option than to run the lines and that required government support. Satellite is an actualized alternative right now. And cellular broadband may be an alternative now, and it will only increase its coverage and speeds with time.

Patrick Rady

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 3:57 p.m.

I, too, am glad that is covering this. I have often wondered "Who Killed Wireless Washtenaw?". It just sort of disappeared. Given that is stepping on the toes for major telecoms, I have feeling that it isn't just a matter of funding simply vanishing. I would be interested in seeing some more journalism discussing what happened to what was a fairly high-profile project. Ann Arbor could use more investigative journalism and less civic cheerleading.


Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 8:41 a.m.

@TruBlue76: You've got to be kidding! Right? I get soooooo tired hearing the same intellectually weak arguement when "other countries" are the reference. "Other countries" have better health care, infrastructure, quality of life, etc., etc., etc,... OR so I've been told. "They" told me...


Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 8:22 p.m.

Thanks to for bringing this matter back into focus. I agree with others who've already posted re: skepticism and "math doubts." The problem remains (as with other major issues): other countries are WAY ahead of the U.S. in providing broadband service to their citizens. Only - "here in Perfect America" - there always seems to be some way to NOT get where we want to go. As for Mr. Wolff, wouldn't a nice audit of Wireless Washtenaw be fun about now?

Marc Williams

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 2:48 p.m.

@Paula Gardner Clarification please. I didn't see anywhere in the linked article where 20/20 is "spinning off" their retail stores. Spinning off implies the creation of a new entity formed by splitting from a larger one. The article only speaks of a new franchise agreement, rebranding and a renewed focus on 20/20's retail locations.


Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 1:57 p.m.

I don't think they should receive public stimulus money unless the service is free. Last time I checked they were more expensive than cable.

Marc Williams

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 1:24 p.m.

Unlike Wireless Ypsi whose mission is "bringing free broadband internet access to Ypsilanti" 20/20 Communications also sells data services for profit. Without public funds and no profits from the project how does this not conflict with 20/20's business goals? Why after five years and $2 million are there only 600 users? How is this a sustainable business model?

Nathan Bomey

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 1:01 p.m.

Tidge, yes, the Wireless Washtenaw network spans about 100 square miles. Hope this helps! -Nathan Bomey,


Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 11:47 a.m.

Or they could do it this way. :-)


Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 11:39 a.m.

Is there a current "coverage map" for Wireless Washtenaw? 600 daily rural users doesn't sound like that much to me.

Paula Gardner

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 10:54 a.m.

St. Julian, Thanks for your comment. We decided this story deserved an update given the number of years that Wireless Washtenaw has been "on the table" in this county. It also supplements a companion piece published today that shows how 20/20 Communications is changing its strategy by spinning off its retail division and buying into a new brand. Paula Gardner Business Director

Steve Feinman

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 9:37 a.m.

Planning to file is different than having filed. Having filed seems to be newsworth as would recieving the grant. Planning to file seems more like an advertsement for the company.

Al Feldt

Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 8:47 a.m.

It would be nice if 20/20 could succeed, but it would help if they would condescend to answer their emails. I wrote them months ago asking for information (their website is out of date) and haven't heard a word. Wireless Ypsi has responded promptly to several inquiries.


Wed, Aug 19, 2009 : 8:20 a.m.

Great... spend $4,000,000 more, maybe they'll push their average daily usage up to 800 users! Yo!... if the project is "not profitable"... why would sinking four million more make it profitable??? Typical bureaucratic thinking! If you're going to blow that kind of cash (that comes from our taxes by the way), why don't you just put in a request to buy everyone in Washtenaw a new iPhone instead. At least that way we'll all get something out of it rather than 20/20 landing a four million dollar sale! The government is the taker that would pay millions of dollars to see if someone can finally squeeze a square peg through a round hole!!! If you ever wondered how this country could get $9,000,000,000,000 in debt and counting... YOU NEED TO READ NO FURTHER THAN THIS ARTICLE.