By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Nov 02, 2005 at 5:04 AM

Two months after first reported on it, the City of Milwaukee is edging closer to making itself a wireless city.

A hearing today could let negotiations begin between the city and a company called Midwest Fiber Networks.

Donna Raffaelli of Midwest Fiber Networks believes Milwaukee is ready to become a wireless city and that her company has a "significant jump start on any other player given the city's and her company's existing agreements and infrastructure."

She also believes there's a tremendous opportunity for Milwaukee to be a national leader in this space. Today, she talks to OMC about her company and its plans for your wireless Internet needs.

OMC: What's the background of your company and why is it qualified to help make Milwaukee a wireless city?

Donna Raffaelli: Midwest Fiber Networks LLC is a Milwaukee-based, woman-owned business with a strong record of growth. Together with our affiliate company, CableCom LLC, we employ approximately 70 people. Our three principal owners bring more than 30 years of combined experience in network communications.

We're qualified to help deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network for a number of reasons.

First, our core competency is in designing, building and maintaining large-scale fiber optic and wireless data networks for prominent businesses and public entities. Confidentiality agreements and security concerns prevent us from disclosing the names of many of our clients. I can say that we've successfully designed, built and maintained complex, highly engineered networks for a number of Fortune 500 companies in the Milwaukee area-and for a number of other clients in the private and government sectors.

Second, Midwest Fiber has a significant head start on the licensing and infrastructure that any provider would have to address in order to deploy a similar network. That's because we've already leased rights-of-way in city-owned facilities, as well as on local utility poles, for several of the private business networks we've constructed. We believe these already existing agreements -along with the infrastructure we've already deployed-put us 18 to 24 months ahead of any player interested in building a similar citywide network from scratch.

Third, we're a Milwaukee-based company that shares the commitment of Mayor Barrett and a number of Common Council members to making the Milwaukee Wireless Initiative a reality. There's a tremendous opportunity to make Milwaukee a leader not just in the race to deploy muni Wi-Fi, but also in the push to narrow the digital divide that keeps lower-income residents from accessing the Internet. Our model offers Milwaukee a path to leading the way in both of these areas.

OMC: How will you make money when the Mayor says there is no cost to the City?

DR: We'll lease our network to service providers who can provide broadband, or high speed Internet access to end-users (consumers, businesses, institutions, community groups, etc.). Our revenues would come from our contracts with these service providers.

OMC: Many cities have offered free muni Wi-Fi. Is this a service that government should be involved in when so many private companies do it well?

DR: Let's start with the point about government's involvement. We recognize there has been some confusion regarding our model as it relates to the exclusivity (or not) of our proposed agreement with the City of Milwaukee. All Midwest Fiber is looking to do is extend our current licenses with the city to include additional rights-of-way on city structures (buildings, streetlights, traffic signals, etc.) that would house our hardware. This would be an expansion of our already-existing relationship with the city.

Any other provider who wants to negotiate with the city would be able to do so. We think it's a perfect example of government and the private sector working together to deliver something of great benefit to taxpayers without making taxpayers foot the bill.

What we're offering is indeed free in the sense that the city and taxpayers won't have to pay to build or maintain the network infrastructure. That immediately sets this model apart from most of those being considered in other cities. In fact, the city and taxpayers actually end up with a new revenue stream from our model because Midwest Fiber would pay additional fees to the city to lease rights of way to place our hardware on additional city-owned facilities such as buildings, streetlights and traffic signals.

As for the cost of the service to consumers, monthly access fees are the subjects of ongoing negotiations with a number of service providers. Several of the latter have expressed a willingness to provide access to lower-income residents at dramatically reduced rates. We expect access costs to be at or below market rates for the rest of the city's residents. In the end, Milwaukee wins because more options means more competition, which ultimately translates into lower access rates and improved service quality for everyone.

We estimate it will take us six to 12 months to deploy the network, depending on the time it takes to finalize an agreement with the city. Again, thanks to our already existing agreements with the city and other utilities, and the infrastructure we've already deployed, we're confident Midwest Fiber could deploy a citywide Wi-Fi network 18-24 months faster than any other provider.

OMC: ISPs fear competition. How will the Time Warners, SBCs and Comcasts of the world make money under a free Wi-Fi plan in Milwaukee?

DR: Again, the network is free to the city in the sense that taxpayer dollars won't be needed to build or maintain it. Access will be offered by service providers at competitive rates, and we're negotiating deals by which lower-income residents of Milwaukee would be able to contract for service dramatically reduced rates.

Any provider would be able to negotiate with the city to create a similar network if they wanted to.

In addition, our model would feature an "open network," meaning any service provider would be able to negotiate to lease bandwidth on the Midwest Fiber network. We're already negotiating with local, national and international providers who have expressed an interest in leasing bandwidth on our network.

OMC: Time Warner sued a New York City company that installed routers converting the cable provider's broadband service into building-wide wireless service. Do you fear legal challenges in Milwaukee?

DR: We don't anticipate similar legal challenges (in Milwaukee).

OMC: Google made headlines late last month when it threw its name into the San Francisco ring for wireless, saying it would build a San Francisco wireless network for free for the city and provide 300-Kbps service at no charge to user. Why not Google for Milwaukee?

DR: As for Google, we'd welcome the chance to have them on board as a provider in the event they were interested in offering Internet access services to Milwaukeeans. The open network model we're proposing would give Google or any other provider the opportunity to lease bandwidth on our network. In fact, it appears that Google's model is also to contract out for someone else to build and maintain the infrastructure network, while they provide the services, applications and content.

OMC: Anything else?

DR: The committee hearing (today) represents a first step, and a preliminary one, at that. The hearing is about whether or not the city's chief information officer can negotiate an agreement with Midwest Fiber Networks to expand our current agreements with the city. The Common Council will have the power to approve any agreement reached by Midwest Fiber and the city's CIO. We think Milwaukee, its residents, its businesses and other constituents have a lot to gain by letting us move forward with these negotiations.

(Note: designed the start page for the city's wireless network available at Cathedral and Pere Marquette Parks.)

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.