WisBusiness: Mad City Broadband Chief Says Madison ‘Ideal Market’ for Wi-Fi Network

By Brian E. Clark


Mike Zito, the man behind Mad City Broadband, will be in Madison today and Wednesday to meet with civic and business leaders.

Zito, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Cellnet Technologies, has described Madison as an “ideal market” for a wireless “Wi-Fi” network that he hopes will eventually cover Madison.

Coverage of the first part of project will run from the Bay Creek neighborhood to the Beltline on the south side of Madison. It will go roughly two blocks past the Yahara River on the east side and to Highland Avenue on the west, Cellnet officials said.

WisBusiness Editor Brian Clark interviewed Zito by phone last week to talk about his company. The firm installed its first transmitter on a city owned traffic light in downtown Madison on Feb. 6. For the time being, the service is free.

Brian Clark: Why is Madison an ideal market for your company?

Mike Zito: It has a great university in the UW, it is a capital city with a lot of visitors and has a number of big businesses. In addition, our analysis of Madison shows a sizable part of the population is tech savvy.

Clark: Will this be your first visit to Madison?

Zito: No, I’ve actually been up there a couple of times now. And I liked it. It’s a great university town and I really liked State Street. You’ve got a lot of people right in that small area connecting state government and the university. I saw a lot of computers being used in the coffee shops. I was quite impressed.

Clark: How did you come to set up Mad City Broadband?

Zito: We were brought in by San Diego-based WFI after AOL backed out. WFI knew the business model we were willing to work with, one that we think will be successful. WFI brought us into Madison.

Clark: Has this business model been tried anywhere else?

Zito: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been tried with Wi-Fi. But this is very similar to the business model that we have in our core business, which is automated meter reading for water, gas and electric utilities.

For example, we will build a network in let’s say, Kansas City – a real example – and we will read the meters for Kansas City Power and Light. Then we get the business of Kansas Gas and we’ll put radios in all their gas meters and then we’ll get the water utility and put radios on all the water meters, so we’ll have a multi-purpose network that we don’t sell to the consumer. But we will sell it to three, four or five entities. That keeps our infrastructure down and we do what we do best, which is maintain a mission-critical network and we let the other folks bill the consumers.

We are taking the same model into Wi-Fi, which separates us from others because a lot of the Wi-Fi providers are wanting to deal with consumers. We aren’t set up for that, nor do we have the desire to do that. We would be competing with Internet Service Providers, (ISPs) but we’d rather be their partners.

Clark: You’ve already done this with WE Energies in Milwaukee?

Zito: Not on the Wi-Fi side. We have no wireless activity going on with WE Energies. But they are a fabulous customer and we read about 1.2 million of their electric and gas meters. We read them through radio frequency, the same basic technology that is used to do the Wi-Fi that we have installed in Madison.

Clark: If this works in Madison, will you go after other university towns that have similar demographics?

Zito: Absolutely. And towns that don’t have universities. Then again, some university cities might not have the critical mass that Madison has with the UW.

Clark: And this will be done at no cost to taxpayers?

Zito: Absolutely.

Clark: Will you pay the city anything?

Zito: Yes, for the few city poles we use. We hope the city will use the network for its own purposes. We think we can bring a lot of value for such things as public safety. Today, they are probably driving around with Verizon and other types of cards in their computers that are very slow and costs $30, $60 or $100 a month.

We think we can provide faster service and more bandwidth for pennies compared to what they are using now. They would also be able to track buses and garbage trucks. There are a lot of things that have never been done. But we think that once we have the network solid, and the city government realizes it can be a mission-critical network, they will look to doing something with it for the city’s benefit.

Clark: Will you be paying rent for the Madison Gas & Electric poles you’ll be using?

Zito: Yes, we have an arrangement with them.

Clark: What will this wireless service cost consumers?

Zito: That will be up to the ISPs, they know the market up there a lot better than we do. We are a network infrastructure. We know how to propagate and run them. That’s why we like to partner with the best-in-class.

We will put this network up and it will be effective and cost efficient for the ISPs to convert folks from the current Internet service they use.

Clark: How soon will the network expand to other parts of the city?

Zito: Soon. No one on our team has brakes. They are pretty fired up. The performance they are getting from the equipment that is already deployed is very good. They can’t get over the ‘wow’ factor yet.

Clark: Do you know how big the market would be for this service in Madison?

Zito: Not offhand. We are really learning the market as we go. The hotels and hospitality market are an area and corporations who bring in contractors are a market.

So are apartment communities that might offer their tenants wireless broadband. The market can be designed several ways and this will create a lot of opportunity for businesses in Madison. We hope we create more ISPs up there. We think we can reduce the costs for a lot of businesses and increase their functionality.

Clark: One skeptic – a professor at UW-Madison – recently suggested that the market isn’t that strong for Wi-Fi and that having the service is more about a city’s image. He said Philadelphia started it and now every city has Wi-Fi envy.

Zito: I can’t disagree with the last part of the statement. But we don’t just do Wi-Fi on the street. We also get it into the home. We have what other broadband providers have. We aren’t just for mobile. We are for homes, offices, the airport and state government.

Clark: The first transmitter went up on Feb. 6. Are there others up now and are they working?

Zito: Absolutely.

Clark: Are the Alliant Energy Center and the airport working yet?

Zito: I don’t believe they’ve been installed at this point.

Clark: Your company has signed up two ISPs so far – Res Tech and Merrimac Communications. Any others?

Zito: To date, that’s my information. But there are some other businesses, too.