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'Unwired' Series: One hot spot, 910 square miles

A Michigan county is working to give everyone within its borders wireless Internet access. But when it comes to security, users are on their own.

Every home, school and business within the 910 square miles of Oakland County, Mich., will have mostly free wireless Internet access by late 2007. That's approximately 1.2 million people from 500,000 households and 30,000 businesses in 62 cities, villages and townships. But users are in for a surprise if they think their online activities will be automatically protected from bots, spyware, worms and the cyberthieves who control them.

'Unwired' series

"Because it's free and widely available, that means it won't have encryption and other traditional security," said Scott Oppmann, the county's application services manager and the man in charge of the wireless project.

This will at least be the case for the free service being offered at the lower bandwidth. Those willing to pay for higher-end service could receive extra security. The service provider will also take steps to keep the wireless field from being taken down. But for those using the free service for basic Web surfing, Oppmann said, "You can imagine the complexity security measures would add to free services. To talk about WEP and encryption keys right now, that will be a pain for those who are [tech] savvy and it won't work for those who currently lack savvy."

Ultimately, he said, it will be up to individual users to make sure their computers are fitted with the latest firewall, antivirus and antispyware programs. It will also be up to them to be careful about which corners of cyberspace they choose to visit. "There are security measures individual users should take -- the same things you should do if you use Comcast or other computing devices at home," he said.

Oppmann said the goal isn't to offer the service and then leave people high and dry on security. Education is a big part of the county's public campaign for the program, known as Wireless Oakland. That, he said, includes a healthy dose of Security 101.

"One thing about Wireless Oakland is that we'll have a consistent captive portal," he said. "A key component will be an FAQ describing what users should do for security's sake. That will include the use of antivirus and firewalls and being careful about how you do your online banking."

Building a tech-savvy culture
So why offer everyone in the county free wireless access? Oppmann said it's all about changing the culture, making the general population more tech savvy and, in turn, preparing people for a major shift in the local economy.

"Everyone talks of the digital divide, and we had a study on broadband availability," he said. "We found that the cost and availability of broadband is such that there's a divide between those who have the economic and educational ability to get and use broadband and those who don't in this county just south of Detroit. There are 265,000 people with a high school diploma or less, who have less know-how or ability to afford it."

And so the goal is to make the technology available to everyone and create an environment where people can learn new computer skills. By doing that, the local government hopes to entice new high-tech companies to move in, add to the tax base and create new job opportunities for citizens.

"Companies want people who can work with them to support higher technology," Oppmann said. "Even automotive companies like Daimler Chrysler are looking to use higher technology and need people with the right skills. It's a real workforce development issue. The wireless field will give people the means to learn more about technology and enable business. The possibilities are endless. While this is a tech project, there's a much larger vision."

Access in phases
The project was born in December 2004 after County Executive L. Brooks Patterson returned from a trade mission to the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. While there, Patterson noticed that every building and resident he visited had broadband access. He eventually learned that the city had an Internet village blanketed in a 2-square-mile wireless field. Oppmann said, "He came back and asked, 'Why not do it here?"

The project was formally launched in February and the first phase, begun Labor Day weekend, was a demo in which the service provider, MichTel Communications LLC, established a wireless field over a 15-block area during a festival in downtown Pontiac. More than 2,000 people tried out the access on their own devices along with those who took a test drive on laptops made available in a cafÉ. "That was our first real test, and people were very pleased with the speed and accessibility," Oppmann said.

For the next phase, MichTel and the county are launching pilot projects in seven communities. By the end of the first quarter of 2006, the goal is to extend wireless access to people in an 18.5-square-mile area. The seven communities are Royal Oak, Pontiac, Troy, Birmingham, Madison Heights, Oak Park, and Wixom.

"Our target is to have this done by mid-to late 2007," he said. "Our hope is that in that timetable some of the technology will catch up with us. We have some rural communities where Wi-Fi isn't yet viable. We hope to have an umbrella of WiMax coverage in those communities. We're keeping close touch with companies like Siemens and Intel on the availability of WiMax."

The big payoff
Oppmann estimates that $100 million ultimately will be invested in the project. But the county isn't paying for any of it, nor will it make a profit. Those issues rest with the service provider the county tapped to make Wireless Oakland a reality.

"MichTel is implementing it, they'll own and maintain it and they'll reap the financial benefits," he said. "The county's IT department has 150 full-timers and 40-50 contractors at any given time, so we couldn't do this on our own. It's not in our business model."

He said the big payoff for the county is that it creates a more tech-savvy citizenry and will ultimately allow county departments to offer more online services.

MichTel was contacted for this story several times but failed to respond. The county selected the Pontiac-based company for the project this fall after evaluating bids from 13 different providers.

Does lack of security present legal problems?
Though MichTel will control the infrastructure, there's a question of whether the county could someday run into problems over the lack of security for the free access. One possible scenario -- some users suffer a cyberattack that leads to identity theft or damaged computers and they take their frustrations out on the county with lawsuits. But Oppmann doubts that will happen.

"Since this is such a public initiative with so much press attention, we don't worry about people threatening to sue us if they suffer a security breach, though we know we have to keep doing as much education as we can," he said.

The county is more concerned about the potential for a public backlash if, as Oppmann put it, "a bunch of kids are caught looking at illicit materials on the Internet." School districts in the county have already raised this concern.

In a case where something happens on school grounds, he said, "School systems are responsible for filtering content. But they've raised the concern over whether they'll have to filter content on the playground where a kid may decide to look at pornography on his mobile device. That is a concern, and we'll work to sort those issues out as part of the public campaign."

In the end, he said it all goes back to teaching people to secure their own machines and be careful about which sites they visit.

"If you buy your kid a laptop, put a content filter on it and talk to your kids," he said.

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