If 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.
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