Madison’s 5Nines Launches Free 4G Network for Businesses

Businesses, non-profits, and community centers in parts of Madison, WI, can now get free, high-speed wireless Internet access by tapping into a 4G network built by 5Nines, a local Internet service provider (ISP) and technology firm.

An organization must pay $150 for a pre-configured router—non-profits get half off—but there is no cost for the service itself, according to a press release 5Nines issued last month.

Once a business buys the equipment, it’s as easy as plug and play: place the router near a window, turn it on, and start offering Wi-Fi to customers.

“I can’t stand complicated sales processes,” said Anton Kapela, 5Nines vice president of data center and network services. “I want to move products and run a network.”

Twenty organizations have signed up and connected to the network since Aug. 31, said Kapela, and about 20 more sales are pending.

According to a page on 5Nines’ website for prospective businesses, the free 4G access “is not meant to replace your primary business Internet service.”

Kapela said the company envisions its network being useful for small businesses that want to provide free guest Wi-Fi while protecting the data and bandwidth they use for everyday operations.

The current coverage area stretches about five miles across most of the isthmus where the city’s downtown is located, Kapela said. The signal originates from cellular antennas, or “sites,” on buildings and rooftops, he said.

Today, the network consists of two sites, though Kapela said 5Nines plans to finish installing and activating three more by the end of October. One of the new sites will be east of downtown and the others will be to the west, on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and near UW Hospital.

About 100 sites would be needed to cover the entire city, Kapela said.

Why is 5Nines, whose bread and butter has long been wired Internet infrastructure, making a foray into wireless?

“We have an abundance of bandwidth we can share right now, and 4G mobile technology is a clear winner to deploy broadband service quickly and cheaply,” Todd Streicher, the company’s president and CEO, said in the press release.

5Nines, which Streicher co-founded in 2001 as a consulting company before it began providing Internet service, is one of several independent ISPs competing head-on with incumbent telecom companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Charter Communications in the realm of wired broadband.

Whereas cable and fiber networks are mostly buried underground, 5Nines uses a top-down approach to wire some of Madison’s newest apartment buildings. These high-rises have point-to-point terrestrial microwave radios mounted on their roofs, which connect to radios on top of the building housing 5Nines’ offices. That building, located at 222 W. Washington Ave., “is one of the biggest peering points in Madison,” said Jordan Barrette, director at MIOsoft, a data technology company with offices nearby.

Kapela said another reason 5Nines is trying its hand at wireless is that expanding such a network is much easier than building out, say, a fiber-optic network, which requires tearing up roads to lay conduit, glass that encases the fiber cables. Installing a new cellular site can cost as little as $5,000, Kapela said.

“We’ve removed as many barriers that get in the way of doing the right things for our customers as we can. There’s no install and no truck rolls,” said Kapela, describing how other ISPs often give customers a multi-hour window when they need to be at home to let in a technician.

Adding to the simplicity for 5Nines and its customers is the lack of contracts, though the company may eventually charge businesses who use the network. For now, clients only need to agree to 5Nines’ terms and conditions, which Kapela said “fit one page and the font’s not that small.”

The Wi-Fi offered by participating organizations will be about as fast as 4G from major carriers like Verizon (NYSE: VZ) or AT&T (NYSE: T), Kapela said. Last year, 5Nines tested devices on AT&T and Verizon’s networks and found they averaged download speeds between 15 and 20 megabits per second (Mbps).

That may not sound blazing fast, considering Madison residents can get a 60 Mbps connection for as little as $30 per month from Charter, the city’s most entrenched household Internet and cable provider.

But, Kapela said, a surfeit of bandwidth doesn’t make a difference for … Next Page »

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Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jbuchanan@xconomy.com Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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