Nate Bell’s five year-old Toshiba Satellite Pro sits open on my lap in the passenger seat of his 2002 Saturn as we drive along Old Stage Road in Sister Bay.
“Try logging on now,” Bell instructs me. This is the second afternoon we’ve spent driving around the back roads of northern door in his attempt to teach me how Northeast Wisconsin Wireless Internet Services (NEWWIS), a division of Online Door County, works. As I click on the Firefox browser logo, I’m still pretty lost.
A moment later I’m looking at the Internet as we head south toward Appleport Road. I’m browsing as I would at my desk, going from CNN’s site to ESPN to NEWS.com, bouncing around with only the occasional hiccup.
While much of rural Door County has waited for the fiber-optic dream of Brilliant Cities to come to fruition, Bell has been working diligently to provide high-speed wireless service to individual homes around the peninsula, most of them north of Egg Harbor.
“I think we’re one of the few people making progress on telecommunications in northern Door County,” Bell says. Charter last added coverage in Egg Harbor in December of 2005, and the much-hyped Brilliant Cities proposal to provide fiberoptic service to all of the peninsula has failed to take off due to a lack of investors.
Online Door County began offering wireless service four years ago and now claims over 400 customers. That number may not seem high, but it’s a far cry from the humble origins of a company founded in Ephraim in 1994 by Rick Gordon as a computer repair service.
They offered dial-up service for several years when Gordon said it became apparent in the late ‘90s that customers would switch to higher speeds.
“A friend in Appleton suggested we try wireless,” Gordon said. He liked the idea and began exploring ways to mount equipment on towers to create a canopy system in Northern Door. It wasn’t easy. Gordon and Bell said renting space on towers can get expensive and cell phone companies and other providers don’t make it easy to get a foothold.
Ultimately they placed a wireless transmitter on a Sturgeon Bay tower.
“We hoped by chance we could get a link to a tower in Ellison Bay,” Gordon said. And they did, enabling the service to take off.
Bell said he’s after a market the big boys of telecommunications don’t have the time for or interest in, individual rural customers who can’t connect through high-speed cable hookups available only in a small umbrella along some stretches of Highways 42 and 57.
NEWWIS is connected to the Internet backbone through AT&T, Charter and SBC, what he calls a system of redundancy, used to fend off problems if one connection goes down. From there, the system feeds users through a web of repeater sites placed on towers and antennas throughout the county. The 15 repeaters sit on towers 40 to 70 feet high, and the four main towers sit on towers in Ellison Bay, Sturgeon Bay, Peshtigo and Menominee.
If a customer can get line of site to the Ellison Bay and Sturgeon Bay towers Bell says he can get them five megabytes of service. When in range of the repeater sites he can get customers 2 megabytes.
The price of install has dropped from $1,000 in the company’s infancy, but the service still isn’t cheap. Equipment and install will cost about $400, and the typical service runs $55 per month.
But many are finding cost a necessary burden to maintain communication and their careers.
Sam Perlman, Economic Development manager at the Door County Economic Development Corporation, says increasing connectivity in the county is integral in growing the economic base.
“Twenty-first century business is driven more and more by telecommunications,” he said. Perlman believes IT-based business has particularly significant potential for Northern Door for three reasons. “It has such a small ecological footprint, it’s well-paying, and it’s year ‘round.”
Bruce Mielke does Web site design and programming from his home between Ellison Bay and Gills Rock. He said high-speed wireless is absolutely necessary for him to do his job, and for a while he tried satellite Internet service, but wasn’t happy.
“I sometimes have to upload large files and with satellite I’d have to drive to a place that had a T-1 line,” he said. After a year and a half he was ready to switch to NEWWIS, which offers slower download speeds than cable but much faster uploading. “I’m really happy with it. It’s top-flight compared to what I had with the dish.”
Mielke spoke to the increased importance of Internet access in today’s world.
“Without the high-speed wireless I don’t know how much longer I would have worked.”
Mielke is a permanent resident of the peninsula, but Bell estimates at least 10 – 15 percent of his customers are second homeowners. They tell him the wireless service allows them to spend more time in Door County, working over the Internet and expanding weekend getaways to weeklong stays.
Gordon said he could see the service expanding to 1,000 users within two years, and Bell said with a few key upgrades it could handle 5,000. If the cost of equipment were to drop again, high speed Internet access could soon be an affordable option for many more rural Door County residents. Until then, dollars will limit growth.
“Our biggest hurdle is money,” Bell said. “More money equals faster growth.”