June 14, 2008

Wi-Fi Wonder


Wireless Internet has altered many aspects of daily life. For instance, it has made it easier for Special Business District Director Carrie Gartner to settle friendly wagers.

Instead of seeking out a desktop computer to find a disputed fact, Gartner can pull out a cell phone and connect quickly to a wireless Internet zone - or "hot spot." Using the phone's Internet capabilities, Gartner said, the bet can be cleared up quickly.

"It's not just work; it's not just for students," Gartner said. "It's woven so much into how people live now, it's really key to have these hot spots."

The emergence of wireless Internet - or Wi-Fi - as an everyday tool is what drives Tim Worstell's business, iZones. Worstell started iZones as a way of delivering Wi-Fi to residences and later expanded to serve larger customers.

"Long story short is that the business plan morphed into" providing "Internet to apartment complexes, hotels and large businesses," he said. "That's our primary market. And we've got a niche with that from a standpoint that we take care of everything for the customer."

Since starting up roughly five years ago, iZones has provided Wi- Fi to customers ranging from apartment complexes, fraternities and sororities to businesses throughout the city's downtown Special Business District.

But as wireless technology evolves, Worstell's company is set to change.

Soon, iZones will provide customers with the ability to receive high-speed Internet anywhere. No longer, he said, will people have to be in the midst of a "hot spot" to connect.


Worstell is a Columbia native who co-owned the coupon-delivery company Doormail from 1996 to 2004. After realizing the advertising market in Columbia was filled to the brim, he decided there was a niche available to provide wireless Internet.

At first, Worstell foresaw connecting rural residents. Later, he broadened his focus across Mid-Missouri. "I was like, `Let's just play in our backyard since this is where we're at,' " Worstell said.

The company now operates out of Columbia's Buttonwood Business Center with five employees. One important thing about the service, Worstell said, is that the company isn't beholden to Mediacom or CenturyTel for an Internet connection.

The company makes its earnings by charging a monthly fee for its Internet service. Because much of its service is at a discount, Worstell dubs the company the "Sam's Club of wireless."

"You own a complex that has 100 units. We're going to give you a discount and charge you $10 or $20 a door for that connection," Worstell said. "And then we take care of everything. But then, if it's only $10 a door, guess what the going rate is for high-speed Internet in Columbia? Average rate is about $40 a month. So now that landlord, that property owner, can put in their pocket a $30 profit, and they didn't do anything for it."

Although the company offers Internet service to individuals, Worstell said the company's focus is to connect businesses. The business service is meant to be customer-friendly. If a tenant doesn't pay rent, for example, a landlord can use a feature within the iZones infrastructure to shut off Internet access to that tenant. There also are features that allow customers to get status reports on an Internet connection.

Those features are meant to make the service attractive to apartment complex owners who want to lure tenants. They can get money back from investing in Wi-Fi either by passing the cost along to tenants or by using it to attract new tenants.

Either way, Worstell said, customers will make money back by offering the service.

Verna Drennan, manager of Ashland Manor, said her company's relationship with iZones has been smooth. She said offering Wi-Fi to tenants for $10 a month was an attractive way to lure tenants.

"That was something that the owner did thinking that it might be a come-on to help people to decide if they wanted to rent here," Drennan said. "We felt that would be one of the assets or one of the amenities that we would have."

One of the reasons Wi-Fi has become so widespread is because certain chips are incorporated into nearly every new laptop. Because the chips are standard in Apple and PC computers, the service has become nearly ubiquitous across the country.


Wi-Fi is especially widespread in downtown Columbia, where a number of restaurants and cafes employ the service. It has become especially popular in establishments where coffee is served, such as Starbucks, Panera Bread and Lakota Coffee Co.

Gartner said Flat Branch Pub & Brewery, Shakespeare's Pizza and Sub Shop allow customers to connect to wireless Internet.

Lance Wood, general manager of Flat Branch, said the restaurant has offered the service for a couple of years now. But, he said, customers haven't used the service as much as other establishments.

"I'll be honest, the most people who use it are my employees," he said. "We have a lot of people who do come in and use it. Overall, I think the reception is good. But is groundbreaking? Not really."

But Wi-Fi isn't strictly a business phenomenon. Public entities also are offering the service. Daniel Boone Regional Library offers the service to patrons, as does the Wabash bus station and Columbia Regional Airport.

Kris Farris, spokeswoman for the Daniel Boone Regional Library system, said incorporating wireless in the multi-library system was a logical step.

"We have wireless available to our patrons in all three of our facilities - in Ashland, Fulton and Columbia," Farris said. "Basically, it's a very typical service for a library to provide. ... We have computers available for use, so the wireless is kind of an expansion upon that service."


While Wi-Fi facilitated a shift from desktop-based computing to more mobile environments, Worstell conceded that the technology is imperfect.

For one thing, the equipment used to transmit the wireless Internet signal - such as a wireless router purchased at Best Buy or Circuit City - is not particularly durable. That forces a person or a business to replace the infrastructure every couple of years.

Moreover, current technology limits the signal that can be transmitted. That's why many routers have to be placed in an apartment complex for tenants to receive wireless Internet.

"You can only transmit a small, small miliwatt," Worstell said. "Whereas, for instance, a cell tower where a carrier - whether it be Cingular or AT&T or whoever it might be - they're transmitting a full watt. And they're on a licensed frequency, so they're able to cover a lot more."

Other problems are interference from cordless phones or microwaves, factors that often hamper Internet connections.

Worstell hopes to alleviate some of those issues through the implementation of evolving technology. He said the company has contracted rights in Columbia to transmit a service known as WiMAX to users. WiMAX is essentially a hot spot that stretches for miles, as opposed to a confined area of a few hundred feet.

If the company manages to get funding from investors, they'll launch the WiMAX technology next summer. Instead of having to find a "hot spot" in a cafe or restaurant, customers with WiMAX devices will be able to connect to the Internet anywhere.

While the technology now is deployed by telecommunications companies such as Sprint, it hasn't become widely implemented into communication devices. Intel is placing WiMAX chips into newer computers. Worstell said that should make WiMAX more mainstream.

And as that technology becomes more widespread, Worstell said his company would be able to provide Internet service to everyone in Columbia.

"It'll be just like your cell phone," Worstell said. "You'll also have television on it; you'll be able to" have voice conversations "on it. You'll do everything you want to do with your laptop or hand- held device."

Reach Jason Rosenbaum at (573) 815-1724 or [email protected]

Originally published by JASON ROSENBAUM of the Tribune's staff.

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