Wink: high-speed wireless for Albany

wink wireless logoIf you've tried to use wireless internet on Lark Street or other parts of downtown Albany, you've probably tried, or at least seen, Albany FreeNet. Tech Valley Communications offers the free wireless service in Albany's downtown business corridors.

Today Tech Valley Com rolled out a premium wireless internet service in Albany. It's called Wink.

We talked with Tech Valley Com's wireless director, Jeff Mirel about Wink, Albany FreeNet and the dream of a free-wireless city.

Wink works in all the same areas of the city that Albany FreeNet does, so why would people purchase the service?

The idea behind Albany FreeNet was really to give back to the community the best way that a communications company could. We started AFN back in 2006 with that intention. Originally we were providing an hour of free service a day. Now you can get AFN all day, but it works at 1.5 mbps and there's a 200 mb data cap in a 24-hour period.

The next step was figuring out how we could take this Albany FreeNet concept and grow it, while still maintaining a commitment to community -- to figure out how to do well, while doing good.

Wink starts at 3 mbps, so it's doubling speeds out of the gate. There are two product classes. With Wink at home ($24.99/$34.99) we provide a wireless modem -- it's a real simple device. It comes with an antenna that you screw on and you stick it in a window facing the street. Home accounts come with a roaming account. You can also get just the roaming account ($19.99), but the benefit of the modem is additional security. We can go into the modem and do trouble shooting remotely, too. If you're a roaming customer, we can't get into your computer or iPhone and set up your security for you.

But will it work inside buildings?

With the home service you should have no problem because you have the modem. But with the roaming service... wireless is an imperfect thing. Anybody with a cell phone knows that. The whole Verizon campaign is "Can you hear me now?" Well, we face the same problem.

With the roaming service it can be more difficult to get signals indoors. And of course the better the card or antenna in your device, obviously the better it will work for you.

The way wi-fi works is kind of like baseball. Our radios throw a hundred mile fastball... but the radio in my iPhone is kinda like a t-ball batter, it's going to swing and miss. Still, I'm not trying to make excuses, the fact is that every day we are trying to make the service better.

But right now we look at Wink as competing with your cable and DSL providers. We're less expensive, we're a locally-owned company and the money you spend on Wink helps us provide Albany FreeNet. Wink is a reliable, truly high-speed service. The modem just enables a more robust connection and helps to overcome interference issues and the power shortcomings of some Internet devices.

AOA "roams" a lot for work, so this is a selfish question -- are you working toward better roaming service?

Yes. And if people ever have a hard time accessing Wink or Albany FreeNet in areas where the coverage shows they should be able to, we really hope they'll contact us at our 800 number. That's really valuable to us. I think this month we'll crest 15,000 user sessions on Albany FreeNet. So we know that it's working, but we could always make it better.

Is that Utopian dream of a free wireless city ever going to happen?

To make Albany a completely wireless city would cost between $7 million and $10 million. And free can be a dangerous thing.

Free has to make sense or it won't last. We think it's better to have public/private partnerships and create valuable projects that make sense for everyone. At the end of the day Tech Valley Communications has to have a way to fund the high costs of providing and maintaining this service. We're trying to create enduring business models -- doing well while doing good. But it has to be sustainable.

There were a lot of bad business models for municipal wireless out there. Earthlink was one of the biggest. They went to some of the bigger cities. They over estimated the ability of the technology so they under budgeted. They gave away the farm expecting they could make it up by selling to consumers later. We worked to come up with a sustainable business model for Albany to maintain a commitment to providing high quality free service. We don't have it all figured out yet, but we have a belief in this business model and a belief in community. And we're tied to the health of our region.

Is there a plan to expand coverage to other parts of the city anytime soon?

Yes. In our most recent expansion we made a conscious decision to begin in the neighborhoods where internet penetration is the lowest because, again, we wanted to make the business model work while giving back to the community. We've done our own polling and collected thousands of surveys on broadband penetration. Sixty percent or more of homes in these neighborhoods are not using internet of any kind.

Think about applying for a job today -- applying online is the de facto first interview these days. So we've expanded into these neighborhoods first and we'll be offering courses in digital literacy at libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs and other places. We're also planning to offer e-learning classes or workshops to help people put their new internet skills to work. All that is just starting, but it's funded in part through a grant with matching funds from Tech Valley Communications and our partners.

In the next year we're working to moving westward to expand into the Morris and Myrtle student neighborhoods -- because we believe students are looking for low cost, reliable high-speed wireless.

Are there plans to build wireless networks in other parts of the Capital Region? Is Albany kind of a pilot for that?

Yes. When we built the original Albany FreeNet we also built one in downtown Cohoes. I think we saw it as another great developing downtown, and we had fiber assets in Cohoes. We'd love to be in other places. We're talking to some other municipalities which shall remain nameless. I'd love to put wireless everywhere.

Comments

> Now you can get AFN all day, but it works at 1.5 mbps and
> there's a 200 mg data cap in a 24-hour period.

I hear people complain a lot about these 200 milligrams of data, and that's just nonsense: the Internet weighs about 0.2 millionths of an ounce (6 micrograms) on a good day, so in a 24-hour period AFN offers more than 33,000 times the whole Interwebs to your laptop. That's a truckload of LOLcats right there.

Editors: Erp. Fixed.
A question though. I'm looking at the Wink home page: why is the guy in a red shirt typing on a tiny mobile display, when he is clearly carrying a giant plasma screen on his back? Dude!

-S, that's the next evolution of human beings. You know how camels have humps to store fat? We have humps to store 1080p.

I'm amused by the concept of photoshopping glasses onto stock photos. I guess red glasses are a sort of Wink trademark, I can see it.

We recently moved and had to suffer a good week before our internet was back up and running. I was disappointed to find out my neighbors locked down their WiFi service.

I've always left our WiFi accessible. I'm sure Time Warner would hate it if everyone did this... :D

Thumbs up for Albany FeeNet!

I spend my lunch hour doing the blog and answering email with my laptop in downtown Albany. FreeNet's reliable and relatively fast.

My partner and I are about to switch to this service in a day or two. Basically, I'm absolutely fed up with Verizon's pricing for just basic DSL.

If we like Wink, well, I'll definitely recommend it to everyone.

DO NOT PAY EXTRA FOR WINK. Sure the price is enticing but the speeds are taking me back to the days of dialup, I have had it for a few months now and am lucky to average 1mbps which can't handle anything more than opening a text based website. Unfortunately the price difference for roadrunner is huge, but at this point it is worth it, I will be switching very soon.

I've been with Wink since my previous post above in 2010. For the first few years, it was EXCELLENT. Very good speed (enough to support two laptops and a Roku) There were almost zero problems; the one or two times when minor issues came up, the customer service and tech support were great. We used to constantly recommend the service to neighbors.

However, everything about the service has gone hill very quickly over the last year. First, there were lots of billing errors and bad customer service when paying the bill or calling to correct the errors. One day, the service just suddenly stopped working and we got an error message saying our bill was "seriously past due." Except we'd just paid in in person not even twenty-four hours earlier. And, even though it was their mistake, a reconnection fee showed up on the next bill.

Lately, the internet service has been extremely poor. Not just slow speeds, but no connections at all. We got them to swap our original modem for a new one, but the problem persists. It's only briefly corrected by calling the company and asking them to remotely boot the outdoor node. And they've basically told us they will not fix or update the node if that's the source of the problem.

It's pretty obvious they don't want to bother with residential internet service any longer and they should be a bit more up front about this. And, obviously, we're shopping around for a new service.

I'm looking for Wi-Fi service in my home and I do not want to use TWC or a hot spot. Can you help?

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