March 14, 2006 By Adam Stone
In Rockford, Ill., the public and private sectors are merging. A cooperative of private firms is implementing a wide-reaching Wi-Fi network, with support from the city and funds from the state.
"It's in everybody's interest to deploy broadband," said Tammy Eighmy, president of Global Enterprise Technologies and a leader of the cooperative known as Regional Optic Cooperation (ROC)-net Services.
Formed in fall 2005, ROC-net is composed of five private companies. The organization aims to forge broadband fiber connections in and around the city, and now uses Wi-Fi to expand the reach of its network.
Recently ROC-net struck a deal with Airpath Wireless to deploy a large-scale Wi-Fi system. ROC-net will license Airpath's WiBOSS Metro product, a Web-based, hosted application. WiBOSS is an operations support system designed to simplify the deployment and management of Internet access in metro settings. In this case, it would deliver such tools as a Web portal, service plans and billing capabilities.
According to ROC-net, numerous companies already have signed on to the new wireless network, including the Swedish American Health System; the Freeport Health Network; the accounting firm Lindgren, Callihan and Van Osdel; and manufacturer Superior Joining Technologies.
For the medical users in particular, Wi-Fi broadband has potential because it may allow them to quickly download medical files, and perhaps move high-resolution medical images between rural clinics and metropolitan health-care facilities.
Attendees of the press conference kicking off ROC-net included Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; a representative from Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., office; Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill.; and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.
That sort of political cross section is indicative of the support ROC-net has enjoyed all along. The coalition got together with the mayor's blessing in a city in which Wi-Fi has a strange history.
At the time ROC-net formed, the city already had a Wi-Fi network, but service was spotty at best, Eighmy said. The coalition put wireless on the back burner and began expanding existing fiber connections.
Funding came easily as the city signed on to use the network and even prepaid a five-year subscription. That gave ROC-net the operating cash it needed to expand the network.
At the same time, the state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity had been looking for projects in which broadband could boost economic development. Eighmy expects ROC-net to qualify for about $300,000 in loans from that agency later this year. She said the group also might soon land an $850,000 grant from the Illinois Commerce Commission.
With funding support in place and the fiber network growing steadily, the collaborative now has returned to the starting point, implementing Wi-Fi as it looks to extend broadband beyond its eight-square-mile radius.
Not too long ago, a wireless broadband deployment offered a way for a city to pull ahead, to distinguish itself in the economic-development landscape. ROC-net advocates say the scene has changed. These days a city must roll out Wi-Fi to stay in the game.
They point out that there are already more than 200 community broadband initiatives helping communities and businesses function faster and better. Without similar tools, they say, Rockford will fall behind.
With this in mind, Eighmy said the support from the public side will need to be not only generous, but also speedy.
"Access to funds is really critical, but so is the timing," she said. "If we don't get this for another two years, we'll be just like every other city in the United States. Today we have the opportunity to be on the leading edge, to maybe see the Midwest become the next Silicon Valley."
With its affordability and quality of life, the Midwest is poised to pull ahead, but only as long as there is sufficient supporting technology to keep the economy strong, she said. "So the faster we can get it deployed, the better."
The best way to move the needle is through a coalition, Eighmy said, with diverse area businesses joining forces to promote a common goal. For one thing, their combined voices carry greater political clout.
"The more constituents [political leaders] can give benefit to, the better it is for them," she said.
Moreover, the partners all share a common economic interest.
"We're all technology companies, and if technology in the region grows, our companies grow," Eighmy said. "We feel broadband is a critical component within the region."