Citywide wireless Internet projects haven’t connected very well around the country, but the Mountain Area Information Network thinks it has a formula for success in Asheville.
MAIN, a local Internet service provider, is planning to use what’s known as a “mesh network” to cover the city with wireless access to the Web. The key benefits, according to Wally Bowen, MAIN’s executive director, include affordable access and economic development.
“This more affordable, more flexible and more broadly available service really creates some economic development opportunities for home-based businesses, micro-enterprises, small-business start-ups and job training,” Bowen said after a recent presentation to City Council’s economic-development committee. “It’s also the kind of amenity that high-tech firms really seek, so it would really help put Asheville on the map nationwide as a city that has a vision for a digital future.”
A number of cities across the United States have delved into municipal-wireless programs, with spotty success. Earthlink Inc., the nation’s largest wi-fi network builder, announced last year that it was putting all future projects on hold until it can find a way to make them profitable. Philadelphia saw expenses jump as it tried to build its system, and San Francisco residents have expressed disdain for their free service, which has been slow and comes laden with advertising.
But Meraki Networks Inc. recently announced this that it plans to set up an alternate wi-fi system in San Francisco, and the Meraki technology is what MAIN has adopted for use in Asheville, Bowen said.
Meraki manufactures small devices that can connect to the Internet and extend wireless connectivity out about 1,500 feet. The mesh network is created when the devices, or nodes, are sprinkled through a neighborhood, office building or apartment complex to overlap. Not every node needs to connect to the Internet.
“I envision this as lily pads on a pond, and the pads start to intersect, and that’s how you start to get the redundancies and network performance,” Bowen said.
Traditionally, mesh networks have depended on people sharing cable or DSL connections to the Internet, but that sharing usually violates individual customers’ contracts with those companies. MAIN gets around that issue by offering itself as the pathway to the Web.
The mesh network already has nine small clusters set up and working around Asheville, Bowen said. More work to add to the network will be done at a grassroots level until MAIN can secure more funding.
Bowen has asked Asheville City Council for its blessing, and the topic is on Council’s agenda for March 25. Bowen hopes the city’s expression of support would help bring attention to the idea, which will in turn attract grantors and other support. MAIN is not asking for any taxpayer money, he said.