Q. Is the City of Ann Arbor looking into municipal broadband Internet for its citizens? This seems to be a growing idea worldwide with many benefits to the cities served.

A. Municipal broadband systems seek to deliver low- or no-cost Internet access, eroding the “Internet divide.” This is often done by creating a two-tier system that charges only for a high-speed connection, allowing free access to a lower-speed connection.

That was the model for Wireless Washtenaw, a county-led effort in 2004 to provide high-speed Internet throughout the county. An investment of more than $2 million covered only about one seventh of the county, however, and after the failure of a last-ditch effort to win a federal stimulus grant, the free service was discontinued. The few paying customers were transferred to a private provider.

In 2011 Ann Arbor was one of many cities that competed for Google Fiber, which promised gigabit (one gigabyte per second) wired connections. That would have been nice; the fastest download rate in Ann Arbor is currently about a tenth of that. But after rolling out in a dozen cities, Google Fiber too has stalled, with too few paying customers to justify its cost. City spokesperson Robert Kellar writes about municipal broadband: “While there is continued interest in the idea, there are a host of complicated issues involved (state laws, building the infrastructure, managing the network, etc.) that don’t currently have solutions.”

An alternative approach has been deployed by Wireless Ypsi. Launched in 2008 to provide free access mainly around downtown Ypsilanti, it now has about 300 access points there, and many others across southeast Michigan. It shares paid wired service through relays that provide free wireless access in nearby areas. Churches, retirement centers, and businesses have sponsored Wireless Ypsi connections. Sponsors need to have Internet service and buy one or more access point devices ($55-$135). As long as they call it Wireless Ypsi, WirelessYpsi.com will help set it up and provide continuing support at no charge.

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